Description of Historic Place
Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site of Canada is located in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut. The site is comprised of the remains of two 19th-century, three-masted, wooden vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, located in two protected areas, one around each of the shipwrecks: HMS Erebus is in Wilmot and Crampton Bay and HMS Terror is in Terror Bay on the south shore of King William Island. Commanded by Captain Sir John Franklin (Erebus) – who led the expedition – and Captain Francis Crozier (Terror) during an attempt to navigate and map a Northwest Passage through the Arctic, both vessels were eventually trapped by ice in September 1846, deserted by their crews in April 1848, and sank sometime thereafter. Official recognition refers to the protected areas surrounding each ship, established by the Government of Canada’s Orders-in-Council.
The Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1992. It is recognized because:
- these wrecks are associated with Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition in search of a Northwest Passage, which historical and archaeological evidence suggests was almost certainly successful;
- the wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are rare surviving examples of state-of-the-art, mid-19th century Arctic discovery ships. Both wrecks are intact and their historical treasures of shipboard articles have the potential to shed new light on the events of the expedition;
- although no survivors from the two ships were ever found, the more than 32 search, supply or relief expeditions launched between 1847 and 1859 resulted in the mapping of large tracts of what is now the Canadian Arctic. The disappearance of the ships became one of history’s greatest mysteries, capturing the attention of Canadians and other people around the world for over a century and a half, and;
- Inuit knew about the Franklin expedition and encountered its crew in the King William Island region. Since the mid-19th century, Inuit have shared their knowledge with those who came to the Arctic to search for the missing expedition. This information helped define the modern search areas. The eventual discoveries of the two shipwrecks, in 2014 and 2016, are a testament to the accuracy of Inuit oral tradition and knowledge.
In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin sailed from the United Kingdom in search of a Northwest Passage through what is now the Canadian Arctic. He and his men travelled aboard the 370-ton HMS Erebus and the 340-ton HMS Terror, each of which had been refitted and strengthened for polar service and contained equipment to conduct zoological, botanical, magnetic and geologic surveys. Originally designed as sail-powered naval mortar bomb vessels, these wooden ships were of strong construction. For Franklin’s 1845 expedition each vessel was fitted with iron bow sheathing and equipped with a steam engine and a single screw propeller, capable of moving the ships at 4 knots.
Other than a chance encounter with a whaling vessel in 1845, Franklin, his crew and his vessels were never seen again by Europeans. There were many subsequent unsuccessful search and rescue operations; however, no news of the crews was discovered until almost 20 years later when explorer John Rae learned from Inuit that the expedition had ended in the loss of the ships and their crews. In 1859, a message initially dated May 1847 was found during a search expedition led by Captain McClintock, in a cairn on King William Island. It gave the locations of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror lodged in pack ice off the northwest flank of the island. A later message, penned in April 1848, stated that the ships had now been stuck in the ice for a year-and-a-half, and that Franklin and some crew members had perished. The survivors had deserted the ships and were making for the Great Fish River (now the Back River), to the southeast. No additional written documentation from the expedition has, to date, been found that adds appreciably to this cairn note.
Sources: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, November 1992; June 2018.
Key elements contributing to the heritage value of this site include:
- their locations in the Canadian Arctic, Nunavut;
- the remarkable integrity associated with the intact remains of the two vessels
- any remains of the wooden construction of the vessels, the iron bow sheathing, and the two steam engines with a propeller drive (one associated with each wreck);
- artefacts removed from the wrecks and debris field; for conservation, study and display;
- the rich assortment of artefacts remaining on board the vessels and in the surrounding debris fields;
- the integrity of any surviving or as yet unidentified archaeological remains which may be found within the site in their original placement and extent, including tools, personal effects, armaments and any other nautical paraphernalia.