In the Arctic Seas Part 21

The principal articles which caught my attention here were eight or ten fir poles, varying in length from 5 to 10 feet, and up to 2-1/2 inches in diameter (these were converted into spear handles and tent poles), a kayak paddle constructed out of the blade of two ash oars, and two large snow shovels 4 feet long, made of thin plank, painted white or pale yellow; these might have been the bottom boards of a boat. There were many smaller articles of wood.


Half a mile further on we found seven or eight deserted snow-huts. Bad weather had now fairly set in, accompanied by a most unseasonable degree of cold. On the morning of the 12th May we crossed Point Ogle, and encamped upon the ice in the Great Fish River the same evening; the cold and the darkness of our more southern latitude, having obliged us to return to day-travelling. All the 13th we were imprisoned in our tent by a most furious gale, nor was it until late on the morning of the 14th that we could proceed; that evening we encamped 2 miles from some small islands which lie off the north end of Montreal Island.


On the morning of the 15th we made only a short march of 6 miles, as one of the men suffered severely from snow-blindness, and I was anxious to recommence night-travelling; encamped in a little bay upon the N.E. side of Montreal Island. The same evening we again set out, although it was blowing very strongly, and "snowing for a wager," as the men expressed it, but it was only necessary for us to keep close along the shore of the island: we discovered, however, a narrow and crooked channel which led us through to the west side of the island, and, one of the men appearing seriously ill, we encamped about midnight.

Whilst encamped this day, explorations were made about the N.E. quarter of the island; islets and rocks were seen to abound in all directions; eventually it proved to be a separate island upon which we had encamped.

The only traces or relics of Europeans found were the following articles, discovered by Petersen, beside a native mark (one large stone set upright on the top of another), at the east side of the Main--or Montreal--island:--A piece of preserved-meat tin, two pieces of iron hoop, some scraps of copper, and an iron-hoop bolt. These probably are part of the plunder obtained from the boat, and were left here until a more favorable opportunity should offer, or perhaps necessity should compel the depositor to return for them.

All the 16th we were unable to move, not only because Hampton was ill, but the weather was extremely bad, and snow thickly falling with temperature at zero; certainly strange weather for the middle of May! We have not had a single clear day since the 1st of the month.


On the 17th the weather, though dull, was clear, so Mr. Petersen, Thompson, and I, set off with the dog-sledge to complete the examination of Montreal Island, leaving the other three men with the tent: we hoped also to find natives, but had not seen any recent traces of them since passing Point Booth. Petersen drove the dog-sledge close along shore round the island to the south, and as far up the east side as to meet our previously explored portion of it, whilst Thompson and I walked along on the land, the one close down to the beach, and the other higher up, examining the more conspicuous parts: in this order we traversed the remaining portion of the island.

Although the snow served to conceal from us any traces which might exist in hollows or sheltered situations, yet it rendered all objects intended to serve as marks proportionably conspicuous; and we may remember that it was in its winter garb that the retreating crews saw Montreal Island, precisely as we ourselves saw it. The island was almost covered with native marks, usually of one stone standing upright upon another, sometimes consisting of three stones; but very rarely of a greater number.


No trace of a cairn could be found.

In examining, with pickaxe and shovel, a collection of stones which appeared to be arranged artificially, we found a quantity of seal's blubber buried beneath; this old Esquimaux cache was near the S.E. point of the island. The interior of the island and the principal islets adjacent were also examined without success, nor was there the slightest evidence of natives having been here during the winter: it is not to be wondered at that we returned in the evening to our tent somewhat dispirited. The total absence of natives was a bitter disappointment; circles of stones, indicating the sites of their tenting places in summer, were common enough.

Montreal Island is of primary rock, chiefly grey gneiss, traversed with whitish vertical bands in a N. and S. direction (by them I often directed my route when crossing the island). It is of considerable elevation, and extremely rugged. The low beaches and grassy hollows were covered with a foot or two of hard snow, whilst all the level, the elevated, or exposed parts were swept perfectly bare; had a cairn, or even a grave existed (raised as it must be, the earth being frozen hard as rock), we must at once have seen it. If any were constructed they must have been levelled by the natives; every doubtful appearance was examined with the pickaxe.

A remark made by my men struck me as being shrewd; they judged from the washed appearance of the rock upon the east side of Montreal Island that it must be often exposed to a considerable sea, such as would effectually remove everything not placed far above its reach; when looking over the smooth and frozen expanse one is apt to forget this.

Since our first landing upon King William's Island we have not met with any heavy ice; all along its eastern and southern shore, together with the estuary of this great river, is one vast unbroken sheet formed in the early part of last winter where _no ice previously existed_; this I fancy (from the accounts of Back and Anderson) is unusual, and may have caused the Esquimaux to vary their seal-hunting localities. Mr. Petersen suggested that they might have retired into the various inlets after the seals; and therefore I determined to cross over into Barrow's Inlet as soon as we had examined the Point Ogle Peninsula.


Upon Montreal Island I shot a hare and a brace of willow-grouse. Up to this date we had shot during our journey only one bear and a couple of ptarmigan. The first recent traces of reindeer were met with here.

On the 18th May crossed over to the mainland near Point Duncan, but Hampton again complaining, I was obliged to encamp. When away from my party, and exploring along the shore towards Elliot Bay, I saw a herd of eight reindeer and succeeded in shooting one of them. In the evening Petersen saw another. Some willow-grouse also were seen. Here we found much more vegetation than upon King William's Island, or any other Arctic land I have yet seen.



On the evening of the 19th we commenced our return journey, but for the three following weeks our route led us over new ground. Hampton being unable to drag, I made over my puppy-team to him, and was thus left free to explore and fully examine every doubtful object along our route. I shall not easily forget the trial my patience underwent during the six weeks that I drove that dog-sledge. The leader of my team, named "Omar Pasha," was very willing, but very lame; little "Rose" was coquettish, and fonder of being caressed than whipped; from some cause or other she ceased growing when only a few months old; she was therefore far too small for heavy work; "Darky" and "Missy" were mere pups; and last of all came the two wretched starvelings, reared in the winter, "Foxey" and "Dolly." Each dog had its own harness, formed of strips of canvas, and was attached to the sledge by a single trace 12 feet long. None of them had ever been yoked before, and the amount of cunning and perversity they displayed to avoid both the whip and the work, was quite astonishing. They bit through their traces, and hid away under the sledge, or leaped over one another's backs, so as to get into the middle of the team out of the way of my whip, until the traces became plaited up, and the dogs were almost knotted together; the consequence was I had to halt every few minutes, pull off my mitts, and, at the risk of frozen fingers, disentangle the lines. I persevered, however, and, without breaking any of their bones, succeeded in getting a surprising amount of work out of them. Hobson drove his own dog-sledge likewise, and as long as we were together we helped each other out of difficulties, and they were frequently occurring, for, apart from those I have above mentioned, directly a dog-sledge is stopped by hummock, or sticks fast in deep snow, the dogs, instead of exerting themselves, lie down, looking perfectly delighted at the circumstance, and the driver has to extricate the sledge with a hearty one, two, three haul! and apply a little gentle persuasion to set his canine team in motion again.

Having searched the east shore of this land for 7 or 8 miles further north, we crossed over into Barrow's Inlet, and spent a day in its examination, but not a trace of natives was met with.


Regaining the shore of Dease and Simpson's Strait, some miles to the west of Point Richardson, we crossed over to King William's Island upon the morning of the 24th, striking in upon it a short distance west of the Peffer River. The south coast was closely examined as we marched along towards Cape Herschel. Upon a conspicuous point, to the westward of Point Gladman, a cairn nearly five feet high was seen, which, although it did not appear to be a recent construction, was taken down, stone by stone, and carefully examined, the ground beneath being broken up with the pickaxe, but nothing was covered.

The ground about it was much exposed to the winds, and consequently devoid of snow, so that no trace could have escaped us. Simpson does not mention having landed here, or anywhere upon the island except at Cape Herschel, yet it seemed to me strange that natives should construct such a mark here, since a huge boulder, which would equally serve their purpose, stood upon the same elevation, and within a couple of hundred yards. We had previously examined a similar but smaller cairn, a few miles to the eastward.


We were now upon the shore along which the retreating crews must have marched. My sledges of course travelled upon the sea-ice close along the shore; and, although the depth of snow which covered the beach deprived us of almost every hope, yet we kept a very sharp look-out for traces, nor were we unsuccessful. Shortly after midnight of the 24th May, when slowly walking along a gravel ridge near the beach, which the winds kept partially bare of snow, I came upon a human skeleton, partly exposed, with here and there a few fragments of clothing appearing through the snow. The skeleton--now perfectly bleached--was lying upon its face, the limbs and smaller bones either dissevered or gnawed away by small animals.

A most careful examination of the spot was of course made, the snow removed, and every scrap of clothing gathered up. A pocket-book afforded strong grounds of hope that some information might be subsequently obtained respecting the unfortunate owner and the calamitous march of the lost crews, but at the time it was frozen hard. The substance of that which we gleaned upon the spot may thus be summed up:--

This victim was a young man, slightly built, and perhaps above the common height; the dress appeared to be that of a steward or officer's servant, the loose bow-knot in which his neck-handkerchief was tied not being used by seamen or officers. In every particular the dress confirmed our conjectures as to his rank or office in the late expedition,--the blue jacket with slashed sleeves and braided edging, and the pilot-cloth great-coat with plain covered buttons. We found, also, a clothes-brush near, and a horn pocket-comb. This poor man seems to have selected the bare ridge top, as affording the least tiresome walking, and to have fallen upon his face in the position in which we found him.

It was a melancholy truth that the old woman spoke when she said, "they fell down and died as they walked along."

I do not think the Esquimaux had discovered this skeleton, or they would have carried off the brush and comb: superstition prevents them from disturbing their own dead, but would not keep them from appropriating the property of the white man if in any way useful to them. Dr. Rae obtained a piece of flannel, marked "F. D. V., 1845," from the Esquimaux of Boothia or Repulse Bay: it had doubtless been a part of poor Des Vux's garments.


At the time of our interview with the natives of King William's Island, Petersen was inclined to think that the retreat of the crews took place in the fall of the year, some of the men in boats, and others walking along the shore; and as only five bodies are said to have been found upon Montreal Island with the boat, this fact favored his opinion, because so small a number could not have dragged her there over the ice, although they could very easily have taken her there by water.

Subsequently this opinion proved erroneous. I mention it because it shows how vague our information was--indeed all Esquimaux accounts are naturally so--and how entirely we were dependent upon our own exertions for bringing to light the mystery of their fate.

The information obtained by Dr. Rae was mainly derived second-hand from the Fish River Esquimaux, and should not be confounded with that received by us from the King William's Island Esquimaux. These people told us they did not find the bodies of the white men (that is, they did not know any had died upon the march) until the following winter. This is probably true, as it is only in winter and early spring they can travel overland to the west shore, or that they make a practice of wandering along the shore in search of seals and bears.

The remains of those who died in the Fish River may very probably have been discovered in the summer shortly after their decease.

Along the south coast of King William's Land, as upon the mainland, I was sadly disappointed in my expectation of meeting natives. We found only six or eight deserted snow-huts, showing that they had recently been here, and consequently there was the less chance of meeting with them on our further progress, as the season had now arrived when they seek the rivers and the favorite haunts and passes of the reindeer in their northern migration.


Hobson was however upon the western coast, and I hoped to find a note left for me at Cape Herschel containing some piece of good news. After minutely examining the intervening coast-line, it was with strong and reasonable hope I ascended the slope which is crowned by Simpson's conspicuous cairn. This summit of Cape Herschel is perhaps 150 feet high, and about a quarter of a mile within the low stony point which projects from it, and on which there was considerable ice pressure and a few hummocks heaped up, the first we had seen for three weeks. Close round this point, or by cutting across it as we did, the retreating parties _must_ have passed; and the opportunity afforded by the cairn of depositing in a known position--and that, too, where their own discoveries terminated--some record of their own proceedings, or, it might be, a portion of their scientific journals, would scarcely have been disregarded.


Simpson makes no mention of having left a record in this cairn, nor would Franklin's people have taken any trouble to find it if he had left one; but what now remained of this once "ponderous cairn" was only four feet high; the south side had been pulled down and the central stones removed, as if by persons seeking for something deposited beneath. After removing the snow with which it was filled, and a few loose stones, the men laid bare a large slab of limestone; with difficulty this was removed, then a second, and also a third slab, when they came to the ground. For sometime we persevered with a pickaxe in breaking up the frozen earth, but nothing whatever was found, nor any trace of European visitors in its vicinity. There were many old caches and low stone walls, such as natives would use to lurk behind for the purpose of shooting reindeer; and we noticed some recent tracks of those animals which had crossed direct hither from the mainland.


The cairn found empty--Discover Hobson's letter--Discovery of Crozier's record--The deserted boat--Articles discovered about the boat--The skeletons and relics--The boat belonged to the 'Erebus'--Conjectures.


As the Esquimaux of this land, as well as those of Boothia and Pond's Inlet, have long since given up the practice of building stone dwellings--passing their winters in snow-huts, and summers in tents--no other traces of them than those described remain; so that when or in what numbers they may have been here one cannot form any opinion, the same caches and hiding-places serving for generations.

I cannot divest myself of the belief that _some record was left here_ by the retreating crews, and perhaps some most valuable documents which their slow progress and fast failing strength would have assured them could not be carried much further. If any such were left they have been discovered by the natives, and carried off, or thrown away as worthless.

Doubtless the natives, when they ascertained that famine and fatigue had caused many of the white men "to fall down and die" upon their fearful march, and heard, as they might have done, of its fatal termination upon the mainland, lost no time in following up their traces, examining every spot where they halted, every mark they put up, or stone displaced.

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