Since the fall of Constantinople when the Ottoman Empire blocked overland trade routes to the east, European explorers searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.
The idea of a northern sea route has been around at least since the second century world maps of the Greco-Roman geographer, Ptolemy. Five years after Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue”, John Cabot became the first European to explore the fabled “Northwest Passage”. Cabot made landfall in the Canadian Maritime sometime in June 1497 and, like Columbus, mistakenly believed he had reached the Asian shore.
A year later, King James VII authorized a much larger expedition of five ships and 200 men. Cabot’s expedition is believed to have been caught in a severe storm in the North Atlantic. None were ever heard from, again.
Jacques Cartier departed France in 1534 in search of a faster route to Asia. Three such expeditions failed to discover the great river to the west.
In 1539, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa departed the Pacific coast of Mexico for what the Spanish called, the Strait of Anián. Ulloa is credited with proving that Baja California is a peninsula and not an island but he too came back, empty handed.
Henry Hudson’s explorations paved the way to Dutch settlement in New York but the river that bears his name, proved to be a dead end. Another attempt in 1610 saw Hudson’s expedition stuck in the ice, in Hudson Bay. The ice melted with the Spring of 1611 when the crew mutinied, setting Cabot and a few loyalists adrift in a small boat. The mutineers returned to England. Cabot and the others, vanished.
The “Corps of Discovery“, better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, and intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.
By the 19th century, European explorers looked to the north. To the Arctic. On this day in 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin departed England with a crew of 134 men aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, in search of the Northwest Passage.
HMS Erebus and Terror were perhaps the finest vessels ever to make the attempt, having proven themselves in an earlier expedition, to the Antarctic. With hulls strengthened by steel plates and beams to withstand the massive pressures of the ice, the two were equipped not only with sail but with massive locomotive engines and screws, able to retract within channels designed to avoid damage from the ice. Inside, a steam heating system kept sailors insulated from the arctic cold.
Two months later, the vessels were spotted at the entrance of Baffin Bay. They were never seen again.
Three years later, a rescue expedition set out at the urging of lady Franklin and others, in search of the lost expedition. Three expeditions really, one overland and one each approaching from the north Atlantic, and Pacific. Some tantalizing clues emerged over the following decade. Three graves discovered on Beechy Island, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago . A note and then another, discovered under stone cairns. The weathered bones bearing knife marks raising questions, about cannibalism.
American vessels joined with those of British searchers. The search became all but a crusade for a time but nothing turned up, beyond the occasional clue. No member of the Franklin expedition was ever seen again. Not at least, by European eyes.
Anthropologists believe the Thule people split from related groups called Aleuts and from Siberian migrants some 4,000 years ago, displacing the paleo-eskimo culture called the Tuniit. The “Inuit” people further split around the year 1000 and moved east, across the Arctic.
The techniques by which a human being survives and even thrives in such an inhospitable place, the histories, these are the Qaujimajatuqangit, the knowledge of the Inuit, told and retold in stories going back thousands of years.
Inuit historian Louie Kamookak, explains:
“Inuit had no written system of language… History was passed down through oral history, which meant telling and retelling stories. During the long winter days and nights it was usually the elders who would tell stories.”Hat Tip Louis Kamookak
169 years after HMS Erebus and Terror disappeared the Qaujimajatuqangit of the Netsilik Inuit of King William Island led to their discovery.
In September 2014, an expedition led by Parks Canada discovered the wreck of the HMS Erebus, in an area identified in Inuit oral history. She lay in a mere 36-feet of water, a good sixty miles from where she was believed to be. Two years later, Inuit knowledge led to the wreck of HMS Terror.
In 1852, searchers aboard HMS Resolute discovered the long suffering crew of HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice while searching for the lost Franklin expedition, three years earlier.
Resolute herself became trapped in the ice, the following year. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of rescue. Most of them made it despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechy Island over the Spring and summer of 1854.
In 1855, the American whale ship George Henry discovered the Resolute drifting in pack ice, some 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen sailed Resolute back to Groton Connecticut, arriving on Christmas eve.
The late 1850s was a difficult time for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute, and give her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government as a token of friendship between the two nations.
$40,000 were spent on the refit. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented the vessel to Queen Victoria on December 13, 1859. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until 1879 when she was retired, and broken up. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards. In 1880, the British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes. A token of appreciation for HMS Resolute’s return, a quarter-century earlier.
The Resolute Desk has remained in the White House from that day to this, excepting the Truman renovations and 11 years following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when it was moved to the Smithsonian. President George H.W. Bush moved it into the residence office, in the White House. Aside from that, the Resolute desk has remained in the oval office from the Presidency of Jimmy Carter, to that of Joe Biden.