The Holy Grail of Arctic exploration history

The voyage came courtesy of Adventure Canada, which brought me aboard as a resource historian. The Montreal Gazette published the story on Sept. 3. The Vancouver Sun picked it up immediately. The excavation of the cairn may take three or four days.

By Ken McGoogan

Special to the Gazette

GJOA HAVEN, King William Island, Nunavut –

The search for the logbooks of the ill-fated Franklin expedition — the Holy Grail of Arctic exploration history – has taken on new life.

An Inuit family based in Gjoa Haven, the only settlement near the spot where the 1845 expedition got trapped in the ice, is promising to unearth those logbooks on Saturday (September 4).

Researchers and historians have been searching for the logbooks since the 129-man expedition led by Sir John Franklin disappeared while searching for the Northwest Passage.

The expedition got trapped in pack ice at the northwest corner of King William Island, roughly 160 km from Gjoa Haven. In 1847, 105 sailors endured a horrific march down the west coast of the island before succumbing to scurvy, starvation and lead poisoning. The final survivors resorted to cannibalism.

Wally Porter and Ken

Descendants of George Washington Porter II, a Hudson’s Bay Company manager, say they will excavate the logbooks from beneath a cairn in the centre of Gjoa Haven (pop. 1,100). “Timing is everything,” said family spokesperson Wally Porter. “And the time has come to show the world these logbooks.”

Porter said in a recent interview that his grandfather, Porter II, buried the documents beneath the cairn when it was rebuilt in the late 1950s or early ’60s. The cairn had deteriorated since it was erected in 1944 to commemorate William “Paddy” Gibson, an HBC inspector who had died in a plane crash two years before.

Down through the decades, historians have often speculated that the Inuit on King William Island discovered the logbooks. But until now, the story has been that they scattered the pages to the wind.

The oral history relayed by Wally Porter suggests that, while the Inuit discoverers could not decipher the handwritten logbooks, they knew they had found something of value. He said his grandfather received the documents from a Roman Catholic priest based in Gjoa Haven. Probably, they were the only people in town who could read English.

According to Porter, his grandfather wrapped the logbooks in wax-treated canvas and sealed them inside a metal container before burying them. He added that the records under the cairn are covered by a marble stone left here by Roald Amundsen, who spent two winters in Gjoa Haven while becoming the first explorer to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1903-06.

If unearthed in readable condition, the logbooks would describe how the first two dozen men died, and how officers reacted. They would contain details about Franklin’s death and burial (whether on land or at sea), and would answer the disputed question: Did Franklin discover a navigable Northwest Passage? They would explain why the final survivors trekked south rather than east towards a known cache of food, and point to the location of the still-missing ships, the Erebus and the Terror.

The Porter family claim has its sceptics. Louie Kamookak, the Gjoa-Haven-based grandson of the man to whom the cairn is dedicated, says that in the 1980s, he interviewed the two men who built the original cairn. He believes the excavation will turn up old trading company documents. Still, he will attend the excavation.

An archaeologist / conservator from the Nunavut government will supervise the proceedings, and the CBC will record them. Once unearthed, whatever is found will be sent for preservation to the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, and then returned to the Porter family in Gjoa Haven.

In November 2009, historian David F. Pelly interviewed the Porter family about the documents. He prepared a report for the Nunavut government. Wally Porter showed this report to the present writer, who visited Gjoa Haven while sailing through the Northwest Passage as a resource historian with Adventure Canada, a Mississauga-based travel company.

Pelly had been contacted by the family in September. He relayed information to the Nunavut government, and then interviewed the family in the presence of two lawyers and a government archaeologist. All parties agreed that the documents cannot be examined at the excavation site. They also agreed that the documents remain the property of the Porter family, and that, after a process of conservation, they will be returned to Gjoa Haven for future display.

George Washington Porter II was born in 1895 at Herschel Island, the son of a Scottish whaling captain and an Alaskan Inuit, Mary Kappak. Educated at a mission school in the Aleutian Islands, he moved to Gjoa Haven in 1927 and set up an outpost for the Canalaska Trading Company. In the late 1930s, that Company was absorbed by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

With his wife, Martha Nuliajuk, Porter II raised ten children. In 1984, just before he died, he told his son Chester about the Franklin logbooks. Chester Porter shared that secret with family members in summer 2009.

Ken McGoogan, whose books include Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin’s Revenge, will publish How the Scots Invented Canada in October. He was aboard the Clipper Adventurer that recently went aground while carrying adventure travellers through the Northwest Passage.

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