The wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site of Canada (NHSC) was designated as a national historic site in 1992. The site is nationally significant because: it is associated with Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Northwest Passage expedition; the two wrecks are a testament to this major scientific expedition, and rare surviving examples of state-of-the-art, mid-19th century polar discovery ships; many search expeditions launched between 1847 and 1859 resulted in the mapping of large tracts of what is now the Canadian Arctic; and local Inuit, past and present, shared their knowledge of the expedition, leading to the eventual discoveries of the two shipwrecks.

The national historic site’s designated place consists of two component parts, one for each shipwreck, and includes the seabed and water column above. The HMS Erebus component is situated in Wilmot and Crampton Bay at the eastern end of Queen Maud Gulf, within the Kitikmeot Region (Qitikmiut) of Nunavut, Canada. It is approximately 125 km from Gjoa Haven and 275 km from Cambridge Bay, the two nearest communities. It is a 10 km by 10 km protected zone that encompasses the wreck of Erebus and its associated debris fieldThe HMS Terror component is in Terror Bay on the southwest coast of King William Island, approximately 125 km from Gjoa Haven. This wreck and its debris field are within a second 5.5 km by 10.5 km protected zone. The two protected zones were created by two Orders Amending the National Historic Sites of Canada Order under the Canada National Parks Act, for HMS Erebus on 8 April 2015 and for HMS Terror on 8 December 2017. The national historic site is co-managed by Parks Canada and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association (KIA) and archaeological objects (artifacts) recovered from 2018 onwards will be jointly owned by Parks Canada Agency (PCA) and Inuit Heritage Trust (IHT).

Scientific work conducted by Parks Canada is framed by a research design and will likely transform the nature of our understanding and perception of these wrecks. The present document will evolve over time to reflect the growing understanding and knowledge of this national historic site.

The wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are associated with the British Admiralty’s quest for a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The European search for a navigable route began in earnest in the 15th century with the explorations of Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson and others. In 1818, with the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain’s interest in finding a passage was revived. Over the course of the next 30 years or so, a number of expeditions were launched including overland treks to determine the northern limits of the North American continent. Although no passage was identified at this stage, significant scientific information about the Arctic was brought back to Great Britain, including cartographic information. When a new expedition was proposed for 1845, members of the British Admiralty believed that discovery of a passage was at hand.

Sir John Franklin was selected to command the 1845 expedition with Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier as second in command. Franklin had a long naval career having served on a number of ships including an 1818 expedition that attempted to sail across the North Pole. Franklin was second in command on this expedition, led by David Buchan with two ships HMS Dorothea and HMS Trent. Franklin later led two major overland expeditions to chart the northern coast of North America (1819-1822 and 1825-1827). Crozier also had extensive experience in polar exploration, both in the Arctic and, more recently, as captain of HMS Terror during James Clark Ross’s expedition to the Antarctic (1839-1843).

The two ships under Franklin’s command for the voyage were former bomb vessels, a type of ship that the British Admiralty had successfully adapted for other polar explorations. The shallow drafted bomb vessels with their strong internal structure, necessary to absorb the recoil of their mortars as originally configured, provided protection against the crushing power of the ice. HMS Terror, launched in 1813, had served in the War of 1812 and had first traveled to the Arctic with George Back’s expedition (1836-1837). HMS Erebus, launched in 1826, was slightly larger than Terror and was refitted as a polar discovery ship in 1839. Both ships participated in an extended Antarctic expedition (1839-1843) under the command of James Clark Ross. Prior to sailing with Franklin in 1845, the two ships received additional adaptions for the Arctic voyage including iron plating on their bows. Although they were three-masted sailing ships, each ship was also fitted with a steam engine from a railway locomotive and an innovative screw propeller and a rudder that could be retracted to avoid damage by ice. These were the first Royal Navy steam ships to be sent to the Arctic although they only had a limited amount of patent coal-based fuel on board, and sail remained their primary mode of propulsion. The ships were equipped with the latest technologies including heating systems for the officers’ and men’s living areas and were supplied with three years of provisions. When the expedition departed on 19 May 1845, it was the best equipped and most technologically advanced expedition sent into the Arctic to date.

The ships were initially accompanied by Barretto Junior, a transport ship that carried extra supplies as far as Greenland. In early July 1845 during a stop in the Whalefish Islands on the west coast of Greenland to take on the extra supplies, two officers from HMS Erebus visited an Inuit village to compile a dictionary of Inuit vocabulary; they hoped that this information would help them communicate with other Inuit encountered during their voyage. The last Europeans to see the ships and the 129 men on board were whalers who had a brief exchange with them in late July 1845 while Franklin was waiting for ice to clear so he and his ships could cross Baffin Bay into Lancaster Sound.

Although Europeans were interested in “discovering” a passage, Inuit had been living in this region for generations. Various linguistic and cultural groups were familiar with the land, ice and water through which the expedition would be travelling. By 1845, there had been some interaction between Inuit and Europeans but less in the area of King William Island. The Inuit in and around King William Island lived in small groups that traveled between the island and mainland, including Boothia Peninsula to the east and the area south of the island, depending on the time of year. Known as the Nettsilik cultural group, they included several smaller linguistic groups such as Netsilingmiut. Inuit farther east, in what became Repulse Bay and Pelly Bay, had already had interactions with Europeans, most recently with John Ross and his nephew James Clark Ross (1829-1832). Local Inuit had provided geographic information to the Rosses, served as guides, and helped the Europeans survive the long winters and at times worked as interpreters, as they would for the Franklin Expedition searchers.

In 1847, after more than two years with no news from Franklin and his crew, search expeditions were launched, the first of over 30 expeditions that would set out over the next decade. Most of the searches were made by the Royal Navy, but Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John Franklin’s wife, promoted and financed a number of private searches herself. Most of these expeditions returned without news of the missing men and their ships. In 1850, a camp site was discovered on Beechey Island, just off the southern coast of Devon Island. Evidence indicated that the crews had spent a winter at this site. No documents or detailed information had been left behind although three graves were found of men who had perished.

John Rae, a Hudson’s Bay Company surgeon and explorer, brought back the first actual news of the men’s fates. While travelling towards the Boothia Peninsula in 1854, Rae learned from a party of Nettsilik people he encountered near Pelly Bay that they had heard about a large party of white men starving and dying “some distance to the west”. They added that members of that party had resorted to cannibalism. Rae obtained many personal items of Erebus and Terror crew members at this time from the Pelly Bay Inuit and his findings, soon published, shocked the British public. Although the information from Inuit sources was treated with suspicion and outright bigotry by the British, Rae defended Inuit integrity and the accuracy of their information. By 1854, the British government had grown weary of the search. The country was also now involved with the Crimean War and the government was reluctant to finance another search expedition. Lady Franklin purchased the small yacht Fox and selected Captain Leopold McClintock to command a final search of the region to the west of the Boothia Peninsula where the men and ships were believed to have been lost.

McClintock was an experienced Arctic explorer who had participated in a number of Franklin search expeditions. He left Great Britain in 1857 and, in the spring of 1859, he and his men searched around King William Island discovering human remains and relics from the Franklin expedition confirming that the expedition had come to a tragic end. McClintock also met Inuit who informed him, through his interpreter, of two wrecks in the vicinity of King William Island. While no survivors were found during McClintock’s search, a standard Royal Navy form was retrieved from a cairn near Victory Point, not far from the northern tip of the island. This record is the only significant document relating the fate of the two ships found to date. It contains two entries written almost a year apart. The first entry, dated 28 May 1847, was left by a small group of men during an overland expedition. It is a standard message confirming that the expedition had wintered at Beechey Island in 1845 and that the ships had become trapped by ice, north of Cape Felix, in September 1846. The message concluded with an optimistic “All Well”. The second entry, dated 25 April 1848, contained more sobering news. It stated that the total loss of the expedition to this date was 9 officers and 15 men, Franklin had died in June 1847, the ships were still trapped by ice and had been deserted, and the surviving men were heading south to the Great Fish River (today’s Back River) on the mainland.

Interest in discovering answers about the fate of the expedition captured the public’s imagination and searches for survivors and the expedition records continued for two more decades. Importantly, Rae, McClintock and other searchers benefited from meeting Inuit who had first- and second-hand knowledge of the expedition and/or who recounted oral histories about the lost ships and men. Notably, Americans Charles Francis Hall and Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka led expeditions in 1864-1869 and 1878-1880 respectively to the King William Island region and spent time compiling invaluable Inuit accounts of the expedition’s fate. Today, these accounts continue to provide essential information on the expedition. Hall traveled with two Inuit companions Taqulittuq (often spelled Tookoolito, Hall referred to her as Hannah) and Ipirvik (often spelled Ebierbing, Hall referred to him as Joe). They served as Hall’s interpreters and guides and were key to his investigations. Ipirvik guided later Franklin searchers as well. Intermittent searches for human remains, relics and further clues in the King William Island region continued during the first half of the 20th century.

In the early 1960’s, the first modern wreck searches were mounted in the vicinity of O’Reilly Island, southwest of King William Island. These were followed by additional searches in that region with increasingly sophisticated methods and remote sensing equipment into the early 2000’s. The mid 1970’s and early 1980’s saw the first professional archaeological research at terrestrial archaeological sites related to the Franklin Expedition, resulting in renewed international interest in the story of the expedition. In the early 1990’s, the Government of the Northwest Territories expressed concern about the protection of the wrecks should they be found and, as a result, on the basis of the HSMBC’s recommendation they were designated a national historic site. Shortly thereafter, in 1997, Canada signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Great Britain that assigned responsibility for the wrecks, their recovery and contents to Canada.

In 2008, Parks Canada and the Government of Nunavut launched a new multi-year initiative to search for the wrecks at sea and remains of the 1845 Franklin expedition on land, in partnership with the Canadian Coast Guard, the Canadian Hydrographic Service and the community of Gjoa Haven.b The joint project combined shipwreck searching, hydrographic surveying and terrestrial archaeology using state-of-the-art technology with careful reference to Inuit knowledge including 19th century oral histories.c Two prime search areas were identified by Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team working with Canadian Hydrographic Service scientists and Inuit from Gjoa Haven based largely on 19th-century Inuit knowledge: a northern area near where the ships had been deserted and a southern area associated with 19th-century Inuit reports about a shipwreck there recorded by McClintock, Hall and Schwatka. It was in the vicinity of the southern search region where Inuit had reported seeing a ship in a traditional hunting territory west of the Adelaide Peninsula called Ugjulik “it has bearded seals”. This sighting became known as the “Ugjulik wreck”. On 2 September 2014 Erebus was located within the area identified for the Ugjulik wreck, and on 3 September 2016 Terror was found when information provided by an Inuk from Gjoa Haven led to the discovery of the second shipwreck, in Terror Bay, approximately 80 km north of the Erebus wreck.

Since the discoveries of the two shipwrecks, Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists and project partners have completed a series of archaeological field projects at both wrecks and a renewed Franklin Expedition Inuit Oral History Project has been initiated. It is anticipated that the ongoing scientific work and oral history research will in the future contribute to a fuller understanding of the site’s heritage values and in turn support the site’s commemorative integrity.

Information about the Franklin Expedition was extracted from Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site of Canada, Commemorative Integrity Statement. Approved by:

Genevieve Charrois

  • Director, Cultural Heritage Policies
  • Indigenous Affairs and Cultural Heritage Directorate, Parks Canada

Jenna Boon

  • Field Unit Superintendent Date
  • Nunavut Field Unit, Parks Canada

Jacob Keanik

  • President, Nattilik Heritage Society Date

Fred Pedersen, Chair

  • Franklin Interim Advisory Committee

Locations of the shipwrecks