DNA analysis identifies doomed Franklin expedition sailor


The wreck of the Erebus (Parks Canada)

Posted on June 6, 2021 at 8:46 PM by

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[By Douglas Stenton, Anne Keenleyside, Robert W. Park and Stephen Fratpietro]

It has been 176 years since the Franklin Northwest Passage expedition of 1845 and its catastrophic result – the loss of HMS discovery ships Erebus and HMS Terror, and the 129 officers and crew – continues to fascinate.

Three years after the attempted transit of the last unexplored section of a Northwest Passage began across the North American Arctic, 24 men, including John Franklin, were already dead. For 19 months, both ships had been stranded by impenetrable sea ice near King William Island. On April 22, 1848, the 105 surviving officers and crew left the ships and embarked on a long and perilous journey over ice and land hundreds of miles to the south.

None survived, but evidence of their lives and deaths was found in archaeological sites scattered along the route of their escape attempt to the Arctic shores where the final act of the tragedy.


Map showing the island of Disko, Greenland, where John Gregory wrote to his wife Hannah on July 9, 1845, and Erebus Bay, where he and two of his companions died three years later, in May 1848. (Google Maps / Author), author provided

Positive identification

The bones can provide information on age, size and health, but not on the identity of the remains. The ability to confidently identify remains can shed important light on death rates by rank, ship and location – details that could provide valuable insight into decisions and events that have unfolded in recent months. of the expedition. It would also provide information to the descendants of the sailors, almost all of whom know little or nothing about the place or circumstances of their ancestor’s death.

A study we published in Polar Record, combining archeology, genealogy and DNA analysis, provided the first-ever positive identification of the remains of one of the 105 sailors who left Erebus and Terror in April 1848.

We applied DNA analysis to the skeletal remains of the Franklin Expedition by analyzing mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the maternal line, and Y chromosome DNA, passed from father to son. Analysis of 41 tooth and bone samples from nine archaeological sites in Franklin on King William Island yielded DNA profiles for 27 men.

The skull of one of two unidentified sailors whose remains were buried with those of John Gregory at Erebus Bay in July 1879 by members of the Schwatka research expedition. The grave was rediscovered in 1993, excavated in 2013, and the remains were reburied at the site in 2014. (Douglas R. Stenton / Courtesy of the Government of Nunavut)

DNA and genealogy

Next, we contacted the direct descendants of members of the Franklin Expedition whose DNA could potentially match one of the 27 archaeological profiles. The task of finding descendants was difficult, because in order for DNA to be useful in identifying the remains of an ancestor, the descendant had to be related in one of two very specific ways to the sailor: either a direct descendant in the lineage. feminine traced by the mother of the sailor Franklin, or a direct descendant in the male line of the sailor Franklin himself or his father.

Seventeen of these descendants provided DNA samples for the study; the results of the first 16 did not match any of the archaeological DNA profiles, but on the 17th, from a great-great-great-grandson of Warrant Officer John Gregory, the link added, living in South Africa.

John Gregory was an engineer by profession, had never been to sea, and was employed by a London manufacturer of steam engines and boilers. It must have been an exciting career as the very first passenger railway had only started 15 years ago. His reasons for accepting a last-minute, multi-year assignment on an Arctic expedition are unknown, but could include the generous monthly salary of £ 13 – double the normal salary of first-class engineers – and the excitement of ‘to be involved in a voyage of discovery of the navy.

On July 9, 1845, Gregory was on board HMS Erebus anchored off Disko Island, Greenland. By all accounts, the ship’s companies were in good spirits and making final preparations before sailing west into Lancaster Sound and into an uncertain but hopeful future. Letters written to loved ones, including one from Gregory to his wife Hannah, were brought back to Britain by the transport ships that had accompanied Erebus and Terror in Greenland. It was the last letter she would receive from him.

Travel routes

The DNA results have allowed us to piece together some of the details of Gregory’s journey from where he wrote Hannah’s letter to where he took his last breath, 1,200 nm on the desolate southwest coast of King William Island.

Gregory survived the first three years of the expedition and was one of 105 men who left the ships on April 22, 1848, pulling sleigh-mounted boats with the plan to reach the mainland and bring them up. the river that summer to the nearest one. commercial counter. It would have reached Erebus Bay, 40 nm to the south, at the beginning of May, but it could not go further. Years later, researchers found the skeletons of three men in and around a boat on a sled. We now know that one of the men was John Gregory.

Archaeological and DNA analyzes have revealed for his descendants where John Gregory died, approximately when he died and did not die alone. His remains and those of his two companions now rest in a commemorative cairn erected in their memory on the site.

Douglas Stenton is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Waterloo.

Anne Keenleyside is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Trent University.

Robert W. Park is Associate Dean of Arts and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Waterloo.

Stephen Fratpietro is the Technical Director of the Paleo-DNA Lab at Lakehead University.

This article is courtesy of The Conversation and can be found in its original form here.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.



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