Beechey Island

Taissumani: 2007-11-23

By Kenn Harper

Some languages have a word for an island that is an island only at high tide, but otherwise connected to another land mass. To my knowledge, English doesn't. Too bad, because Beechey Island is such an island.

The most famous of the many islands that mark the shores of the Northwest Passage, Beechey Island at low tide is connected to nearby Devon Island by a sandbar. Seventy-five miles west of Resolute, this rocky landmark is steeped in the lore of the lost Franklin expedition, which sailed into Lancaster Sound in 1845 and disappeared forever.

The island was discovered in August of 1819 by William Edward Parry and named by him in honour of Sir William Beechey, father of Parry's lieutenant, Frederick William Beechey.

Sir John Franklin departed England in the summer of 1845 with a crew of 129 men, intent on discovering the long-sought Northwest Passage to the riches of the Orient. In command of two ships, the Erebus and Terror, he first sailed up Wellington Channel before being stopped by ice and returning to spend the winter off the eastern coast of Beechey Island, his ships moored safely in the shelter of the harbor that came to be known as Erebus and Terror Bay.

The following spring, Franklin and his men continued to the southwest on their doomed endeavour. They probably sailed along the ice-choked waters of Peel Sound and the strait that now bears Franklin's name. In September 1846, the two ships were beset by ice to the north of King William Island. There they remained until April 1848, when the vessels were finally abandoned. The remaining men trekked south along King William Island toward the mainland. No one lived to tell the tale.

In 1850, search parties that had been sent in the hope of finding and rescuing Franklin and his party found traces of their wintering on Beechey Island. They discovered the remains of three storehouses, workshops, a wash house, large numbers of empty meat tins and three graves. No written records were found. Subsequently, Beechey Island became an important depot and meeting place for Franklin searchers for a number of years.

In 1852-1853, Commander W.J.S. Pullen, of the Belcher expedition, built Northumberland House on the island. Constructed from the masts and spars of a wrecked whaling ship, Northumberland House was intended as a supply depot for members of the Franklin expedition, should they return to Beechey. They never did. In later years, Northumberland House was used by Canadian and British sailors as a winter refuge and as a site for securing messages and stores.

In more recent years, Joseph MacInnis and Owen Beattie brought the island renewed prominence. In 1980, MacInnis located the Breadalbane, a British vessel that sank in 1853 on a voyage to resupply Franklin search ships. McInnes described the image of the Breadalbane that he saw on a side-scan sonar from an icebreaker as "a pale ghost beneath the ice."

Beattie, a forensic anthropologist, exhumed the bodies of three seamen whom Franklin buried in 1845 and 1846 at Beechey. Beattie's and co-author John Geiger's best-seller, Frozen in Time, attracted particular attention to the island. Few who have seen the book will easily forget the garish photo of John Torrington's frozen and wizened face on the cover. The authors concluded that the men probably died from poisoning caused by the lead used in sealing meat tins.

Beechey Island has become a favourite stopping point for the increasing number of cruise ships that visit the High ­Arctic. In 1979, the Government of the Northwest Territories declared it to be a site of territorial historical significance. Now it is part of the territory of Nunavut.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to


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