In 1845, two ships departed England in search of unexplored areas within the Canadian Arctic, hoping to uncover secrets that lay in magnetic data to help aid exploration. Lead by Captain Sir John Franklin, the crew of 129 sailed into the freezing lands of what is now Nunavut, Canada, and into the Victoria Strait. This would be the last time Franklin, and all of his men, were ever seen again.
As a grim reminder of the fateful expedition, the remains of desperate sailors have been discovered across King William Island, many of which had samples taken for analysis. Now, DNA testing has identified and reconstructed an officer who met his demise on the expedition, marking the first person from the crew to ever have been confirmed through DNA analysis. The results, produced by the University of Waterloo, were published in the journal Polar Record.
The sailor in question was John Gregory, a Warrant Officer and engineer aboard the HMS Erebus, whose remains were discovered 75 kilometers south of Erebus Bay, where the frozen shipwreck was found. After teeth and bones were sampled for DNA, scientists have positively identified him through familial analysis of his living descendants.
"Having John Gregory's remains being the first to be identified via genetic analysis is an incredible day for our family, as well as all those interested in the ill-fated Franklin expedition," said Gregory's great-great-great grandson Jonathan Gregory, who lives in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in a statement.
"The whole Gregory family is extremely grateful to the entire research team for their dedication and hard work, which is so critical in unlocking pieces of history that have been frozen in time for so long."
What is known about the doomed voyage has been pieced together from local Inuit people, letters written prior to the crew's disappearance, and examinations of remains of the fallen crew members. The HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were waiting in Baffin Bay, a bay to the West of Greenland, in July 1845 for a good opportunity to continue on their way. This sighting of the two ships, made by whalers passing the area, is the last confirmed sighting of the crew alive. According to a note discovered in the aftermath, called the Victory Point note, Franklin and the crew became stuck in ice in September 1846, around King William Island. These ships would never sail again, but the crew are thought to have stayed on the ships for a few years whilst they held out hope for a release from the surrounding ice.
Following Franklin’s death on 11 June 1847, the crew made the decision to abandon the ships, attempting a desperate 400-kilometer journey to the Canadian mainland. Despite making it an impressive distance to the northern coast, all men would perish on this trek.
In 1848, a search party was sent to discover the fate of the lost ships. This, combined with the efforts of subsequent explorers over the next century, would begin to unravel the mystery surrounding the expedition's end. In 2014 and 2016, the wrecks of the Erebus and Terror would be discovered.
Analyses of the remains and accounts from the locals shone a light on the horrible ordeal experienced by the sailors, who succumbed to starvation, hypothermia and vitamin deficiencies as they struggled in the inhospitable conditions. According to marks on the bones of skeletons and conversations with an Inuk by explorer John Rae, some got so desperate that they turned to cannibalism.
With so many of the crew still unidentified, the characterization of one of the men marks an important milestone for helping ease the minds of their descendants. The men lived extraordinary lives and deserve to be understood, and the researchers are now making pleas to help identify the remaining 26 bodies they have encountered.
"We are extremely grateful to the Gregory family for sharing their family history with us and for providing DNA samples in support of our research. We'd like to encourage other descendants of members of the Franklin Expedition to contact our team to see if their DNA can be used to identify the other 26 individuals," said Douglas Stenton, professor of anthropology at Waterloo and co-author of a new paper about the discovery.