Iggiaraarjuk, a man from the Netsilik region who told Knud Rasumussen about John Franklin’s shipwrecked crew members. (Harper collection)

Taissumani, June 21

The deep footprints of tired men

By Kenn Harper

In the late autumn of 1923, before the ice formed, the Danish-Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen, on his ethnographic journey, the Fifth Thule Expedition, travelled with white trapper Peter Norberg and an Inuk named Qaqortingneq to Qavdlunaarsiorfik on the east coast of Adelaide Peninsula in the central Canadian Arctic.

There, they found exactly what Qaqortingneq had told them to expect: the sun-bleached bones of members of the long-lost Franklin Expedition, as well as some pieces of cloth and leather.

Rasmussen claimed that he was the first outsider to visit the spot. He gathered the bones, built a cairn over them and raised two flags at half-mast, the British and the Danish, giving the lost explorers their last honours.

Respectfully, he wrote, “The deep footprints of tired men had once ended in the soft snow here by the low, sandy spit, far from home, from countrymen.”

Rasmussen collected two brief accounts of meetings seven decades earlier, between Nattilingmiut Inuit and men of the Franklin expedition, some struggling to survive, some already dead. The stories had been told before, and—as stories do—had changed somewhat in detail from earlier versions collected by other explorers.

From Iggiaraarjuk, Rasmussen collected this brief story:

“My father Mangaq was with Tetgatsaq and Qablut on a seal hunt on the west side of King William’s Land when they heard shouts, and discovered three white men who stood on shore waving to them. This was in spring; there was already open water along the land, and it was not possible to get in to them before low tide. The white men were very thin, hollow-cheeked, and looked ill. They were dressed in white man’s clothes, had no dogs and were travelling with sledges which they drew themselves. They bought seal meat and blubber, and paid with a knife. There was great joy on both sides at this bargain, and the white men cooked the meat at once with the aid of the blubber, and ate it.

“Later on, the strangers went along to my father’s tent camp and stayed there the night, before returning to their own little tent, which was not of animal skins but of something that was white like snow. At that time there were already caribou on King William’s Land, but the strangers only seemed to hunt wildfowl; in particular there were many eider ducks and ptarmigan then. The earth was not yet alive and the swans had not come to the country.

“Father and his people would willingly have helped the white men, but could not understand them. They tried to explain themselves by signs, and in fact learned to know a lot by this means. They had once been many, they said; now they were only few, and they had left their ship out in the pack-ice. They pointed to the south, and it was understood that they wanted to go home overland. They were not met again, and no one knows where they went to.”

And from Qaqortingneq, this one:

“Two brothers were once out sealing northwest of Qeqertaq (King William’s Island). It was in spring, at the time when the snow melts away round the breathing holes of the seals. Far out on the ice they saw something black, a large black mass that could be no animal. They looked more closely and found that it was a great ship. They ran home at once and told their fellow villagers of it, and the next day they all went out to it. They saw nobody, the ship was deserted, and so they made up their minds to plunder it of everything they could get hold of. But none of them had ever met white men, and they had no idea what all the things they saw could be used for.

“One man, who saw a boat hanging up over the gunwale, shouted: ‘A trough. A gigantic trough! I am going to have that!’ He had never seen a boat and so he thought it was a meat trough. He cut through the lines that held the boat, and it crashed down on to the ice bottom upward and was smashed.

“They found guns in the ship too, and as they had no suspicion of what they were, they knocked the steel barrels off and hammered them out for harpoons. In fact, so ignorant were they about guns that they said a quantity of percussion caps they found were ‘little thimbles’, and they really thought that among the white men there lived a dwarf people who could use them.

“At first they dared not go down into the ship itself, but soon they became bolder and even ventured into the houses that were under the deck. There they found many dead men lying in their beds. At last they also risked going down into the enormous room in the middle of the ship. It was dark there. But soon they found tools and would make a hole in order to let light in. And the foolish people, not understanding white man’s things, hewed a hole just on the water-line so that the water poured in and the ship sank. And it went to the bottom with all the valuable things, of which they barely rescued any.

“The same year, well into spring, three men were on their way from King William’s Land to Adelaide Peninsula to hunt for caribou calves. There they found a boat with the bodies of six men. In the boat were guns, knives, and some provisions, showing that they had perished of sickness.

“There are several other places in our country where we still see bones of these white men.

“That is all I know about the ‘pelrartut’ as we call the white men who once visited our country and who were lost without our forefathers being able to help them.”

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik, the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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(9) Comments:

  1. Posted by Lloyd Binder on

    Thank you for that concise but riveting tale! Chance encounters misunderstood. And the reports unheeded.

  2. Posted by Free on

    Would be so cool if the story about a hole being put into the side of the ship, thus sinking it, is backed up now that the ships have been discovered! Could be just a funny story

    • Posted by R. P. DWYER, GJOA HAVEN. (As we heard it ) on

      In the mid- 1970’s my wife and I collected stories from elders
      about missing ships from around King William Island.
      Her grandfather told us about a large ship which had sunk
      in vicinity of Ugruliq, off the west coast of the Adelaide peninsula. In 2014 the Erebus was found there.
      We were also told by her grand-auntie, that she and siblings,
      when they were very small, used to play close to a very thick
      rope. One end was buried deep in the ground, the other end
      stretched tightly into the sea, as if a ship was still attached to
      the other end. She was also Louie Kamookaq’s grandmother.
      In 2016 the Terror was found there in Terror Bay.
      From what we were told, there were other ships,big & small
      sank around King William Island.
      In 1977 I walked down from our camp near Richardson’s Point
      to ” Starvation Cove “. Elders had told me that Rasmussen had
      found and buried bones there. I found there a cap lock from
      a rifle, the wooden stock had been removed and most of the
      rifle barrel. I sent the cap lock to Mr. S Hodgson.

    • Posted by R.P.DWYER, GJOA HAVEN. ( As I saw it) on

      For many years BACK RIVER people had found and played
      with small beads, on the gravel where they camped at
      Eechimnagruq, on the last Rapids of the Back river, about
      125 miles south of Gjoa Haven.
      A lot of people, me also, did not quite believe it.
      In the summer of 1987, we were camped the same location ,
      my wife said ” We are going to dig for beads ” , so she gently
      scraped a plastic tent peg from side to side, moving the gravel,
      and after about 30 seconds there were hundreds of beads
      off all colours. Can’t beat traditional knowledge !!
      The beads were given to the people by George Back of the
      H.B.C. in 1836, and were made in Venice about 1820 .
      Also in that part of the country, there is a large crevasse up on
      the hillside about about 8 miles east of the camp. There are
      stories from long ago, from Inuit people about white people
      camping and sheltering there.
      Thanks for your good article Ken.

  3. Posted by Clarification on

    Rasmussen was from Greenland and therefore the Inuktitut spellings reflect the Greenland dialects and spellings. I am curious whether Qaqortingneq was from Greenland or whether the Kivalliq name ‘Kakutinniq’ was only spelled in Rasmussen’s Greendland style? Qallunaaqsiurvik would be Qavdlunaarsiorfik in Greenlandic. And ‘pelrartut’ would likely be ‘pirliqtut’ as in ‘those who starved’

    • Posted by To Clarification on


      qakuqtirniq (making/turning while)

      qaplunaaqhiurvik (place to search for qaplunaat)

      pilraqtut (s/he braided)

    • Posted by Kenn Harper on

      Qaqortingneq was a local man. He was not from Greenland.

  4. Posted by Timelines on

    Rasmussen may have claimed to have been the first to be at that spot on the east coast of the Adelaide Peninsula, but there were countless other searchers who were in the area in all the span of the seventy-five years since the expedition became doomed. 1848; John Rae and John Ross, 1859; McClintock and McLure, 1869 Charles Francis Hall and his interpreters, 1879; Schwatka and his interpreters/guides and likely dozen others who were in the employ of all these search expeditions

  5. Posted by No Mystery on

    There was never really any mystery to the sad fate of the Franklin Expedition. The expedition wintered at Beechey Island in 1845/1846, wintered on ice at Victoria Strait in 1846/47 (where Franklin died June 1847, a year to a year and a half before the expedition crew began dying off from starvation and succumbing to the elements), wintered to the west of King William Island in 1847/1848 and started marching inland in May/June 1848 with Capt Crozier and Capt Fitzjames leading the remaining 105 alive to try to reach Aivilik. The accounts in this article span a couple of years; the first time they may have met in June/July 1847 when they were still relatively okay, but thin and thereafter 1848 in which they abandoned ship and started dying from starvation and the cold elements in 1848. The Inuit would have found the Erebus thereafter it was abandoned. It could have beset at Ugyulik but could have shifted to Erebus Bay thereafter a summer open water season. A large portion of them could have died from being frozen once winter came in October 1848, for they were not clothed properly. But Crozier and Fitzjames tried hard to keep hopes up and try to get them to help.

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