By Frances Jean, Connect Contributor
Our main street honours a nineteenth century explorer, Sir John Franklin. For many years he was hailed as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage. Not true. What was true was that both of Franklin’s ships were lost and many expeditions were sent to try and find them; some financed by the Royal Navy and some by Lady Franklin.
The recent discovery of the Erubus and the Terror in the Canadian Arctic closes the chapter on the Franklin Expedition.
The man who should be honoured with having found the passage to the west was Dr. John Rae from the Orkney Islands. His role was never acknowledged by the British Admiralty and establishment. One of many commissioned to search for the Franklin expedition, it was while he was exploring the northwest of our country he came across natives who had in their possession articles from Franklin’s ships.
Rae purchased them from the Inuit cutlery, watches and a silver plate with engraving “Sir John Franklin, K.C.H”. He learned from the Inuit that they had found 30 frozen corpses and signs of cannibalism.
When he reported this to the Admiralty the press printed it and a great furor arose. The Admiralty as well as Lady Franklin vowed that no English seaman would ever resort to such a thing. Lady Franklin in particular, with support from Charles Dickins berated Rae in the press and did all she could to damage his credibility.
And so John Rae, of all the Arctic explorers, did not receive a knighthood. But the Admiralty did acknowledge that he confirmed the fate of the Franklin Expedition and paid him the reward money.
John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in the Orkney Islands off Scotland’s east coast. The fourth son of the Hudson Bay agent, young Dr. Rae roamed the wind-swept hills above the ocean inlet.
At nineteen, he qualified as a surgeon and signed on to a Hudson Bay ship bound for North America. He spent 10 years at Moose Factory and studied the Cree way of life. He made his own snowshoes and dressed like the natives learning how to cope in the wild country he so loved. In two months, one winter he covered 1200 miles by snowshoe.
Dr. Rae was second in command to Sir John Richardson on two search expeditions and charted much of the northern coastline, travelling on foot with his native guides.
He found not only the route through the islands to the west but evidence that Franklin’s crew had died of starvation.
Just in the past few years has Dr. Rae’s contribution to our history been acknowledged. The two-storey home on the Orkney Island is being restored as a museum and finally a plaque has been mounted commemorating him in Westminster Abbey. But here too, the statue of Sir John Franklin looms above the recognition of the man who really discovered the Northwest Passage.
‘One Opinion’ is a Connect Weekly exclusive op-ed article by Fort McMurray matriarch and local author Frances Jean.
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