Geologist finds relic from Franklin search

Canadian geologist Francis Manns was prospecting for lead and zinc.

The mid-summer day was bright and literally endless — 24-hour sunlight.

Manns was working his way along the Abbott River in the middle of Cornwallis Island, some distance north of Resolute Bay, when he spotted a cairn on a ridge or pinnacle.

“It was two or three feet high,” he told me earlier today. “You couldn’t miss it.”

Manns went to investigate, picked up a couple of loose rocks, and found three identical pieces of paper. Maybe I should mention that he did this forty-odd years ago, between June 20 and August 20 of 1973.

The high-rag-content pieces of paper had been deposited there, in the middle of Cornwallis Island, in 1851 by a search party from the Felix, under the command of Sir John Ross. The previous year, Ross had been present off Beechey Island during the discovery of the gravesites of the first three men to die from the lost Franklin expedition.

Together with several other captains, Ross had wintered over and resumed searching north up Wellington Channel — along the east coast of Cornwallis Island. As the Manns discovery shows — and though I, for one, have not been able to locate the Abbott River — Ross’s men ventured some distance inland during their hunt.

“The paper lasted because it is very good quality,” Manns said, “and the Arctic is a desert. The pages were just loosely placed — gently folded and nestled in the rocks. A high wind blows constantly, and the rain when it comes is sparse and horizontal and dries in minutes. I would guess that the cairn had never been wet inside.”

When he got home to Toronto, Manns sent the two other copies he found to the national archives in Ottawa . . . and never heard a word.

“We used to go out in pairs,” he recalled at his home in the Beaches, which is where in Toronto all the cool folks live. “A helicopter would put us down and we’d go prospecting and mapping.” This was before GPS, of course, but even their compasses were useless. “The North Magnetic Pole was just off Little Cornwallis Island,” Manns explained. “It’s now a thousand miles away.”

One geologist with whom he was working — Malcolm Wilson — came upon another cairn on a different traverse. He never said a word about it back at camp, but inside that cairn, he found a piece of paper identical to the three pages Manns had discovered — only this page had been dated and signed. Wilson published an article about it in a Saskatchewan-based journal called The Muskox. In recent decades, Manns has looked for that article a few times, but has never managed to lay hands on it.


  1. Unknown on February 1, 2022 at 5:15 pm

    Relic found Relic

    The Musk Ox was a publication of the University of Saskatchewan. A Musk Ox is a truly remarkable animal. On Cornwallis Island we were told the size of the beast was reduced by circumstances and were smaller than average.

    Malcolm Wilson and I and the entire crew would traverse and shout Monte Python routines to stay sane (?). Malcolm's accent (an expat Brit) was perfect.

    Fran Manns

  2. Fudd on February 1, 2022 at 5:15 pm

    Fran: I remember you showing this piece of paper in 1973. Please send me your new email address. Tim

Leave a Comment