In 1852, the British Admiralty sent an expedition of five ships under the command of Sir Edward Belcher to the High Arctic with orders to continue the search for the missing Franklin Expedition and to take supplies to Melville Island for Collinson's and McClure's expeditions, which had travelled via the Pacific and entered the Arctic Ocean through Bering Strait.
Two of Belcher's ships, the Resolute commanded by Henry Kellett, and the Intrepid under Francis Leopold McClintock, left the rest of the fleet at Beechey Island in mid-August and sailed west. Ice prevented their reaching Winter Harbour, so named earlier in the century by Parry, so the ships wintered about a kilometre east of Dealy Island off the south coast of Melville Island.
Dealy Island is a small island at the entrance to Bridport Island on the Melville Island coast. It is about four kilometres long and almost half as wide.
In the summer of 1853, before leaving their winter harbour, Kellett and McClintock constructed a building in which to house the provisions that they would leave there for the relief of other expeditions, especially that of Collinson, whose whereabouts were unknown.
The building was an impressive structure, built on a flat stretch of raised beach, from sandstone boulders found between this plain and the beach. The construction technique has been described as "double-walled dry stone masonry." The inner and outer walls of boulders have been filled with sod and an earth mound has been heaped up around three sides of the building as added insulation and protection. The roof was made of canvas and coal bags.
Kellett wrote a memo to the Admiralty describing the construction:
"This is a house which I have named the ‘Sailor's Home,' under the especial patronage of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.
"The first stone was laid on the 1st June 1853; the building completed and ready for occupation on 23d July 1853, under the able directions of Mr. Dean, carpenter of H. M. Ship ‘Resolute.' Dimensions, 40 x 14 feet: the walls are four feet thick, the east wall nine feet high, the western seven; it has taken about 100 tons of stone to build it. The roof is supported by pillars in the centre, is covered, first with new canvass tarred, then a covering of coal bags, and lastly with new canvass painted white."
Kellett left a huge amount of supplies at his storehouse. Canned soups, meats, vegetables, hardtack, dried apples, baking powder, flour, bacon, chocolate, tea, sugar – these were only part of the inventory of edibles that were left.
Most of the food and the clothing were stored in oak casks lining the east wall of the building, two rows deep and four tiers high. Tobacco, mustard and onion powder and other items were stored in wooden cases. Medical items and surgical implements were stored in the depot, as were a tent, a Union Jack and nineteen books. Carpenter's stores, boatswain's stores and gunner's equipment were stored along the west wall.
This was an impressive array of equipment for any lost expedition to stumble across. Kellett himself wrote: "The provisions left here are sufficient to sustain a party of sixty-six men on full allowance for two hundred and ten days, with stores, ammunition and fuel."
George McDougall, who participated in the construction of Kellett's Storehouse, as it came to be known, predicted that such a sturdy structure would survive.
"The last week in July saw the depot house and cairn on Dealy Island completed in every respect…," he wrote. "Nothing I believe was forgotten… Both cairn and house are built of such stout materials, as will enable them to withstand the effects of time and weather for ages."
Next week, we'll see how the structure fared over the next century and a half.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.