Against All Odds:  John Franklin and the Search for the Northwest Passage

The final image from “Ten coloured views taken during the Arctic expedition of Her Majesty’s ships ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Investigator, “entitled “Noon in Mid-Winter” by W. H. Brown.

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea
-Stan Rogers

For centuries, the mythical Northwest Passage has been a symbol of the promise, isolation, and harsh reality of the Arctic. Since the earliest maps were drawn, philosophers and explorers speculated on the existence of an open-water passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Even after expedition after failed expedition returned with evidence pointing otherwise, many clung to the fantasy of a navigable Northwest Passage.

Although countless expeditions attempted the Northwest Passage, none may be as memorable as the expedition led by Sir John Franklin that set out in 1845 and never returned. From the beginning, the story of Franklin, his crew, and the HMS Terror and Erebus captured the public imagination. Franklin likely would not be considered a hero today if it were not for the devoted efforts of his widow, Lady Jane Franklin. This indefatigable woman wrote letters to U.S. President Taylor, funded her own search expeditions, and erected monuments in honor of her husband. She worked diligently to make sure that Franklin would be remembered for a discovery he never made.

The Northwest Passage remains central to our understanding of the Arctic, and the search for Franklin continues today. Canadian archaeologists recently discovered the HMS Terror preserved on the ocean floor. The year 2016 also marked the first voyage of a commercial cruise ship through the Passage. As the sea ice continues to thin and fantasy becomes reality, the Northwest Passage will undoubtedly play a role in the Arctic’s future.

This virtual exhibit is a learning collaboration between the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College and “Pole to Pole,” an environmental studies course taught by Professor Ross Virginia. The course examines environmental issues in the polar regions – including climate change, natural resource extraction, and indigenous rights – through the complementary lenses of science, policy, and history. The Rauner Library houses the Stefansson Collection on Polar Exploration, founded as the private research collection of Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962), who spent his later years at Dartmouth College. The Stefansson Collection, one of the richest bodies of printed materials, journals, newspaper clippings, and photographs related to the polar regions, served as the foundation for the course project. Working in three groups, fifty-one Dartmouth undergraduates constructed this exhibit on Sir John Franklin and the Northwest Passage. With the assistance of Rauner Library staff, students selected items from the Stefansson Collection, wrote informative labels, and worked together to structure the exhibit into sections. The resulting exhibit traces the search for the Northwest Passage from before John Franklin’s expedition to the present. Although the text presented here has been edited for formatting, this website is the work of Dartmouth undergraduate students.

Working in groups, students discuss the structure and narrative of the exhibit. Photo by Ross Virginia.



This project would not have been possible without the expert guidance and individual student mentoring provided by Dr. Jay Satterfield (Special Collections Librarian), Morgan Swan (Special Collections Education and Outreach Librarian, and Julia Logan (Assistant Archivist for Acquisitions). Ruth Heindel (Graduate Teaching Assistant) spent many hours working with students and the research groups to find sources, focus concepts, and work on presentations. She created this website with the assistance of Angela Spickard (Research Associate in Environmental Studies). This project was part of Environmental Studies 15, Environmental Issues of the Earth’s Cold Regions, taught in Spring term 2017.