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McClure Arctic Expedition[edit]

The McClure Arctic Expedition of 1850, among numerous British search efforts to determine the fate of the Franklin's lost expedition, is distinguished as the voyage during which Robert McClure became the first person to confirm and transit the Northwest Passage by a combination of sea travel and sledging. McClure and his crew spent three years locked in the pack ice aboard the HMS Investigator before abandoning it before making their escape across the ice[1]. Rescued by the HMS Resolute, which was itself later lost to the ice, McClure returned to England in 1854, where he was knighted and rewarded for completing the passage.


The vigorous encouragement of Lady Jane Franklin turned the search for the Franklin Expedition, missing since 1847, into a national quest in England. McClure had actually served as mate aboard one of Franklin's missing ships, the HMS ''Terror'', with George Back's Arctic Expedition of 1836. His first search for Franklin was as first lieutenant of the HMS Enterprise under James Clark Ross in 1848, which returned in 1849 without discovering a trace. Faced with this lack of progress, the British Government directed a new expedition to search the proposed Northwest Passage from the opposite direction, hoping to encounter Franklin at his journey's end.

Two ships were assigned to this task. The Enterprise was returned to the search under Captain Richard Collinson, and the Investigator under mercurial Commander Robert J. McClure in his first Arctic command [2]. Extensive repairs were required for both ships, which had already weathered Arctic service, including the modern Sylvester's Heating Apparatus. Preserved meat was secured from Gamble of Cork, Ireland, and although some spoilage was experienced, it had no major impact on the voyage, as was subsequently discovered to be the case with Franklin [3].

Double rations of preserved limes were provisioned to offset scurvy. A seven month voyage across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and up the Pacific to the Bering Strait was planned to reach the pack ice during the most ice-free Arctic season. The ships were provisioned for a 3 year voyage.

The Initial Voyage[edit]

On January 10, 1850, the rapidly prepared ships set our from Woolrich, England, then completing the loading of supplies in Plymouth on the 20th. The crew numbered 66, including an Inuit interpreter named John Meirtsching. Shortly after departure, the ships were tested by a squall, which damaged the Investigator's rigging and left her with a number of stress-induced hull leaks, which were repaired. By March 5th they had crossed the equator, and the warm climate generally agreed with the crew. Slave ships were observed in the latitude of Rio De Janeiro [1], described by the expedition surgeon Alexander Armstrong as 'suspicious.' Their southernmost extent, the Strait of Magellan, was obtained on March 15th, the Enterprise always well ahead of the slower Investigator. The two ships lost direct contact after the strait was completed.

Continuing north through several storms, nearly 1000 lbs of stored bread was ruined by water leakage, but was later offset by fresh supplies from the Sandwich Islands. On June 15, the Investigator re-crossed the equator amid clear skies and tropical birds, already having journeyed nearly 15,000 miles. On July 1, they made port at Honolulu, taking on fresh provisions, and having missed the Enterprise by only one day. Five days later, they set out, heading north-west, and aided by prevailing winds, made the Arctic Circle on July 28th, apparently deliberately bypassing his consort ship. The crew busied themselves by readying the arctic gear as they prepared to explore the Arctic alone.

The Arctic Reached[edit]

Rather than waiting to rendezvous with the Enterprise, the unusual decision was made to take the Investigator alone into the ice near Cape Lisburne, presumably to improve the chances of northward penetration. The ice fields were sighted on August 2nd at 72° 1' north. Unable to find open leads, they rounded Point Barrow and entered unexplored waters [1] and the first ice floes.

On August 8, contact was made with local Inuit, who offered a helpful forecast for open water and trading of goods, but were unaccustomed to seeing sailing ships. No news of Franklin was found. Making their way along the coast, message cairns were dutifully left at the site of each landing, crews occasionally trading with other Inuit. The progress north-west was frustrated by ice and shoals, and at one time the Investigator became grounded so firmly that all stores had to be unloaded to her boats (one of which capsized, losing 3344 lbs of dried beef) before she could be freed. Alternating between pressing ice flows, then open water, McClure's continued to advance to the north-east, reaching the solid pack ice on August 19th.

Contact was made with several groups of local Inuit near Point Warren, one of which reported the death of a European. It was soon determined not to be a member of Franklin's party, but that of an overland expedition of Sir John Richardson two years earlier. The grave was located, but not examined in detail. Gifts were given to the natives by McClure to preserve a delicate amity, with several even invited aboard ship. The ice to the north remained impenetrable, but they made Franklin Bay to the west by September 3 amid much wildlife in air and sea. After sighting an extent of Banks Island, claiming it as Baring Land, a brief land exploration was made, presumably the first. A rock formation at a prominent cape was named Nelson Head on September 7th after its imagined resemblance to Lord Nelson. The coast was followed in hopes of access to the north.

Periods of good progress were made, until a wind change caused the ice to close in around the Investigator on September 10, just as they had discovered a route of some promise, the Prince of Wales Strait [2]. Their progress through the ice was deliberate and slow, aided at times by the use of ice anchors and saws. Daily temperatures were now around 10° F. By the 16th, they had reached 73° 6' N, 117° 10' W. Just short of Barrrow's Strait, the rudder was unshipped and winter preparations were begun. A year's worth of provisions were brought on deck in anticipation of the ship being crushed by the pack ice. The dangerously drifting pack finally ground to a halt on September 23.

At times violently shifted by the grinding pack ice, the Investigator endured, the pack becoming less violent by September 27th, 1850. On the last day of September, the temperature fell below zero for the first time, as the top-gallant masts were taken down for the winter and the last birds were observed. Periods of calm were often punctuated by the sudden groaning of the ship timbers, as the ice threatened to nip the vessel. The ship was lifted several feet, and black powder was used to blast any nearby hummocks that threatened.

Several explorations across the ice to land were made, and observations left no doubt as to the existence of a Northwest Passage [1]. In mid-October, formal possession of Prince Albert's Land and several nearby islands was taken, which lifted the spirits of the crew, despite the discovery that nearly 500 pounds of their dried meat was ruined. Otherwise, the crew began the routines that would characterize their Winter Quarters, which included lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Hunting opportunities were sparse, although five musk oxen were taken around this time, extending rations with fresh meat.

The Northwest Passage[edit]

On October 21, Captain McClure embarked on a seven-man sledge trip north-east to confirm his observations of a Northwest Passage. McClure provided that confirmation upon his return on the 31st, having seen an unblocked strait to the distant Melville Island from a 600 foot peak on Banks Island. The entry placed in the ship's log read:

"October 31st, the Captain returned at 8.30. A.M., and at 11.30. A.M., the remainder of the parting, having, upon the 26th instant, ascertained that the waters we are now in communicate with those of Barrow Strait, the north-eastern limit being in latitude 73°31', N. longitude 114°39', W. thus establishing the existence of a NORTH-WEST PASSAGE between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans." [1]

The First Winter and Summer[edit]

The sun departed on November 11, with temperatures averaging -10°F; the below-deck temperature of 48°F kept the crew in good health and spirits. 1851 was welcomed in as the crew amused themselves, occasionally catching foxes or spotting seals, but amid storms, thoughts would often turn to Franklin. Winter temperatures averaging -37°F, and on February 3 the sun returned after 83 days of darkness. An emergency depot of provisions and a whaleboat were made on the nearby island. Reindeer, fox, hare, wolf and a bear were observed as local expeditions resumed.

As spring returned, the decks of the Investigator were cleared of snow and repairs begun. Additional local expeditions were mounted, but none with the sensible object of attempting to meet with Captain Horatio Austin on Melville Island. This would have pooled the knowledge of both expeditions, and enhanced the chances of success for both. One crewman was stricken ill during a storm on the ice, and nearly perished, only saved by crawling back to his tent. By mid-May, additional hunting and exploration parties were sent out to supplement the provisions as temperatures rose above zero, some returning with frost-bitten invalids, some having met an isolated group of Inuit seal hunters. No attempts were made by these parties to rendezvous with other expeditions likely searching nearby to the east and no traces of Franklin were found. As summer returned, the seven foot thick ice showed signs of diminishing, the surfaces pooling with water. An early break up was anticipated.

Preparations were made for the ship's anticipated release from the ice. Late June temperatures reached a high of 53°F, but the ice maintained its hold on the Investigator until it was released on July 14th, soon under sail amid the grinding floe near the Princess Royal Islands. Progress northward was made, the ship often attached to larger floes, and there was even some anticipation of completing the passage in that direction. However, with August this progress slowed to a crawl as the ice offered few chances to advance through the solid northerly ice. On August 14th, they attained their northern-most position at 73° 14' 19" N, 115° 32' 30" W in the Prince of Wales Strait. It was later suggested that, if the Investigator had been equipped with a screw propeller, she could have pressed the 45 miles to Melville Island, completed the Northwest Passage, and returned to England in that same year [4].

The decision to abandon the strait and proceed around the south coast of Baring Island led them to open water and a wider area of search. Rounding to the north east, they continued through the loose ice until conditions compelled them to secure the ship to an iceberg for protection. Explorations of the nearby coast were made, revealing abandoned Inuit camps and the unusual discovery of petrified wood from an extensive forest at 74° 27' N. As winter showed signs of return, they were subjected to the perils of the enclosing ice several times while still attached to their iceberg. These events were successfully managed by the crew, often by blasting the ice, but McClure seemed hesitant to set off from the iceberg for nearby open water, missing several opportunities to do so.

The Second Winter and Summer[edit]

Subsequent efforts to move the ship further eastward were grudgingly awarded by the gathering ice, and slow progress was made, stretches of open water contributing to their progress towards Melville Island. Rather than following the pack ice east, McClure chose to take refuge in an open bay, which turned out to block their progress to the north-east. September 23, the 'luckless day,' saw an end to their progress, as the ship was made ready for a second winter - entering the bay they now occupied seen as a dire mistake. The pack ice would have taken them within 50 miles of Melville Island, and improved their chance of an early break-up in the spring. The location of their wintering was 74° 6' N. 117° 55' W., and was subsequently named Mercy Bay.

The early loss of provisions, as well as the subsequent caching of food at the Princess Royal Islands left them with fewer than ideal stores. By October, heating was briefly curtailed until the more severe periods of winter, with temperatures below deck holding near -10°F. Hunting parties were generally successful, although their exploration frustratingly revealed extents of open water that would have provided escape, only 8 miles outside of Mercy Bay. As winter pressed on, the weakening hunting parties frequently required rescue. On November 10th, the final 'housing in' of the ship commenced, largely sealing it for the winter. The crew busied themselves in the manufacture of needed items, and adopted patches of gunwadding as their currency. Tedium was severe, with two crewmen briefly going mad with boredom [2]. In December, storms rose up as temperatures continued to fall.

1852 began with the crew generally healthy, maintained largely by the reindeer venison provided by the hunters, temperatures reaching -51°F. Frequent hunting of nearby reindeer continued to supplement the provisions, although the hunters suffered from the cold and occasionally required rescue. Despite the occasional fresh meat, the crew continued to gradually weaken.

On April 11th, Captain McClure led seven men out by sledge with 28 days of provisions to reach Melville Island across the ice, and hopefully to make contact with other English explorers in the area. The end of April brought the first case of scurvy aboard ship, with several others soon to follow. When the McClure's party returned on May 7th, relating that poor visibility and soft snow had hampered their progress. They did not Reach Melville Island, but obtained enough of a view of the straight and large harbor to determine that Captain Austin's forces were not present. They did, however, find the cairn left by Sir Edward Parry during his 1819-20 expedition, which also sheltered an June 1851 communication from Captain Austin. This not did not, however, include the information that traces of Franklin's expedition had been found the previous year at Beechey Island. Such information may have altered McClure's later decisions about continuing the search for Franklin or their expectations for relief.

June found the crews preparing for their expected liberation from the ice of Mercy Bay, and although temperatures rose, it was cooler than the previous year. Cases of scurvy continued to increase, although hunting and gathering of the emerging sorrel provided improvement. By mid-month, the ice outside the bay was already in motion, showing some open water by the 31st. The bay ice remained fixed. By September, all hopes of freeing the ship had bitterly evaporated.

The Third Winter[edit]

On September 8th, McClure announced his plan for springtime escape, in which 26 of the crew would make for Cape Spencer (550 miles away), where Austin had left a cache and a boat, and from there, to seek rescue on Baffin Bay. A smaller party of 8 men would proceed back along the shore of Banks Land, to the cache and boat set by McClure in 1851, then making for the Hudson Bay Company's post on the Mackenzie River for rescue. This would stretch the provisions for the crews remaining on board the Investigator. To this end, food rations were immediately reduced, and hunting success became ever more critical, which now included mice.

With October, the health of the crew continued to decline, the coming winter the coldest yet. The ship was prepared for winter as temperatures below deck were below freezing. Full darkness returned on November 7th. Morale and physical activity, including hunting, waned. The officers continued hunting, often requiring rescue as temperatures reached -65°F. 1852 ended with the crew weaker and more afflicted than ever before, although not a single member of the crew had been lost.

1853 brought the coldest conditions yet, once reaching -67°F. The crew passed the days with minimal activity, working on small projects of necessity and hunting when possible, since McClure had prepared no diversions for his crew [2]. Rations were thin and the sick bay was full, even minor illnesses bringing exaggerated disability to the weakened crew. McClure continued preparing for his spring escape parties, planning to send the weaker able men in order to improve the long-term chances of those left behind [1]. Crew selections were made and announced on March 3, to the disappointment of those to be left behind. Full rations were restored to those men preparing to set out in mid-April, and their health improved. Still, on April 5, the first crew member, John Boyle, succumbed to illness, which impacted morale and underscored the dire nature of their situation.

Relief and the Fourth Winter[edit]

On April 6, a detail of men digging Boyle's grave observed figure approaching from seaward. To the surprise of all, it was a Lieutenant Bedford Pim of H.M.S. Resolute, which was wintering off Melville Island under Captain Henry Kellett, on the ice 28 days with a sledge dog team and two men. The Resolute was accompanied by the Intrepid, laying supply depots off Melville Island for the continued search of Franklin and now McClure (having located one of McClure's stashed messages from 1852). Two days later, Pim left for the Resolute, followed soon by McClure and six men, who would journey for 16 days.

Despite the encouraging news of relief, conditions aboard the Investigator were deteriorating. Scurvy was barely held back by the meager rations, and on April 11 another crewman died, and another on the following day. Some exercise was possible for the crew, breathing aided by the modern Jeffreys respirator.

On April 15, the 28-man traveling party, now concentrated on Melville Island alone, set out on three sledges with high hopes. The crews remaining on board bided their time until McClure returned on May 19th, with the surgeon of the Resolute. A medical survey was made to determine whether the Investigator could be adequately manned if freed from the ice. The assessment fell short of the requirements, making the abandonment of the Investigator inevitable - it had, in fact, been ordered by Captain Kellett of the Resolute [2]. The official announcement was made, and all me were put back on full rations for the first time in 20 months. A beach supply depot was established by the end of May, accompanied by a cairn and a monument to the fallen crew members.

On June 3, final flags were raised and the remaining crew abandoned the Investigator for good, travelling by sledge to the Resolute, with 18 days of provisions and McClure leading the way on foot. Progress across the thawing pack ice was slow, as the four sledges weighed between 1200 and 1400 lbs. The endurance of the crew was withering, but they made Melville Island on June 12, and reached the welcoming ships on the 17th.

A party of invalids had been taken from the Resolute to Beechey Island and the North Star to be returned to England in October 1853, along with the first news of the Investigator and the Northwest Passage to the outside world. Hunting resumed, bringing in much fresh meat as the thaw continued, and the Resolute and Intrepid hoped for their own release from the ice. The breakup came on August 18 and the ships followed the edge of the pack ice before becoming fixed in the ice in early November at 70° 41' N, 101° 22' W. With much disappointment, the combined crews prepared for another winter in the ice, while another crewman died on the 16th. Far from any shore, no distraction could be provided by hunting as winter tedium resumed. With 1854 began the fifth year of Arctic service for the crew of the Investigator.

Escape and Return[edit]

Plans were made to detach the crew of the Investigator to the North Star at Beechey Island in the spring of 1854. These three sledge parties set out on April 10 - 12. The journey was severe, but the crews were in improved condition. Socks routinely froze to feet and had to be cut off routinely to fight frostbite. Despite these unfavorable circumstances, the North Star was reached on April 23 - 27 by the parties. Even with this relief, another man succumbed at Beechey Island. They occupied themselves searching the surrounding area for additional traces of Franklin, as Beechey Island was now known to be his first winter quarters. Meanwhile, the Resolute and Intrepid were themselves abandoned, with their crews joining the Beechey Island camp on May 28th.

An exploration party by the Resolute had earlier made contact with Captain Collinson and the Enterprise and learned of their own path of search. A report on the condition of the Investigator, now abandoned some 12 months, was also obtained and indicated that she was tattered, leaking but otherwise intact and held by the ice - Mercy Bay was still solid. By mid-August, the North Star was herself released from the ice, although two other nearby ships (Assistance and her tender Pioneer) were abandoned on the 25th. They proceeded along Greenland and reached the English port of Ramsgate on October 6, 1854, having been gone four years and ten months and losing five men.

Aftermath and Controversy[edit]

Upon return to England, McClure was immediately court martialled and pardoned for the loss of the Investigator, according to custom. he was awarded the £10,000 prize for completing the Northwest Passage. He never made another Arctic voyage.

An initial point of controversy is that the ambitious McClure effectively commandeered an independent Arctic expedition when he severed contact with their consort ship Enterprise before reaching Arctic waters. Considered to be a combination of faulty communications and outright deception [2], this decision increased the risk to the expedition by eliminating the benefits of cooperation.

Their September 1851 progress was limited by McClure's decision not to push towards open water, which may have allowed them much further eastward progress before wintering in. Much effort was made with little advancement after that, which was considered a critical failure contributing to their subsequent problems [1].

Working into Mercy Bay (which became their second winter quarters and final position) rather than following the coastal ice floes was considered a major mistake, forfeiting opportunities to press towards Melville Island through the pack ice - the bay was land-blocked to the north-east. Failing to attempt a meeting with Captain Austin on Melville Island in April 1851 may also have contributed to the hardships endured [1].

McClure's two-party escape plan for spring 1853 was viewed by the ship's surgeon as recklessly dangerous, considering the weakened state of the crews and the extents of their proposed journeys [1]. It has also been suggested that the plan was simply a ploy to eliminate the weakest two-thirds of the crew to extend the rations for McClure and his chosen few aboard the Investigator [2].


McClure is credited as being the first to complete the Northwest Passage (by boat and sledge). Despite some questionable behavior, he was granted the £10,000 prize for completing the passage.

The McClure Strait is named after Captain McClure.

Contrasts with the Franklin Expedition[edit]

As with the Second Grinnell Expedition, employment of an Inuit interpreter by McClure was a critical resource at early parts of the Arctic voyage. Franklin's expedition included no interpreters or Inuit, whose regional expertise may have enhanced their chances of survival.

Despite the similar circumstances of being trapped in the ice for more than three winters, the thriving ecosystem of Banks Island provided enough game to offset the severest onset of scurvy and wasting. During their voyage, the expedition took 112 Reindeer, 7 musk ox, 3 seal, 4 polar bears, 2 wolves, and numerous fox, hares, lemmings, mice and a variety of birds and fish [1]. Franklin appears to have fared much worse, as the game near Beechey Island appears to be more seasonal and sparse. This lack of fresh food, combined with the extensive spoilage of the cheaply canned provisions, were a contributing liability to Franklin's expedition[3].

McClure also benefited from the regular construction of message cairns along his route - one of which was indeed discovered by the Resolute, leading directly to their targeted rescue efforts. Only one message cairn is known to have been left by Franklin, despite an ample supply of message canisters. Additional messages by Franklin would have corrected many of the search efforts, who had to guess about his route.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Armstrong, Alexander (1857). A Personal Narrative of the Discovery of the Northwest Passage. London: Hurst and Blackett. Retrieved 2010-04-07. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Essay prepared for "The Encyclopedia of the Arctic" by Jonathan M. Karpoff. (DOC format)
  3. ^ a b Keenleyside, Anne (1997). The Final Days of the Franklin Expedition: New Skeletal Evidence. Arctic Magazine, Volume 50, No. 1, March 1997.  Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  4. ^ Agnew, John Holmes (1854). The North-West Passage. New York: Eclectic Magazine Volume 31, February 1854. Retrieved 2010-05-04.  Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)