Three decades after researchers found John Torrington, they finally found the two ships on which he and his crewmates had traveled.
The preserved face of John Torrington some 140 years after he perished.
When the Erebus was discovered in 36 feet of water off King William Island in 2014, it had been 169 years since it set sail. Two years later, the Terror was discovered in a bay 45 miles away in 80 feet of water, in an astounding state after nearly 200 years underwater.
“The ship is amazingly intact,” said archaeologist Ryan Harris. “You look at it and find it hard to believe this is a 170-year-old shipwreck. You just don’t see this kind of thing very often.”
The Parks Canada team of divers went on seven dives, during which they inserted remotely-operated underwater drones into the ship through various openings like hatches and windows.
Then, in 2017, researchers reported that they had collected 39 tooth and bone samples from Franklin expedition members. From these samples, they were able to reconstruct 24 DNA profiles.
They hoped to use this DNA to identify crew members from various burial sites, look for more precise causes of death, and piece together a more complete picture of what really happened. Meanwhile, a 2018 study provided evidence that contradicted long-held ideas that lead poisoning due to poor food storage helped explain some of the deaths, though some still believe lead poisoning to be a factor.
Otherwise, big questions remain unanswered: Why were the two ships so far away from one another and how exactly did they sink? At least in the case of the Terror, there was no definitive evidence to explain how it sank.
“There’s no obvious reason for Terror to have sunk,” said Harris. “It wasn’t crushed by ice, and there’s no breach in the hull. Yet it appears to have sunk swiftly and suddenly and settled gently to the bottom. What happened?”
These questions have since left researchers looking for answers — which is precisely what archaeologists did during a 2019 drone mission that went inside the Terror for the first time ever.
The Terror was a state-of-the-art vessel and, according to Canadian Geographic, it was originally built to sail during the War of 1812, participating in several battles before its journey to the Arctic.
Reinforced with thick iron plating to break through ice and designed to absorb and equally distribute impacts across its decks, the Terror was in top shape for the Franklin expedition. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough and the ship ultimately sank to the bottom of the ocean.
Using remote-controlled underwater drones inserted into the ship’s hatchways and crew cabin skylights, the 2019 team went on seven dives and recorded a fascinating batch of footage showcasing how remarkably intact the Terror was nearly two centuries after it sank.
Found in the officers’ mess hall aboard the Terror, these glass bottles have remained in pristine condition for 174 years.
Ultimately, to answer this question and others like it, there’s much more research to be done. To be fair, the research has really only just begun. And with modern-day technology, it’s quite likely we’ll find out more in the near future.
“One way or another,” said Harris, “I feel confident we’ll get to the bottom of the story.”
But although we may uncover more secrets of the Terror and the Erebus, the stories of John Torrington and the other Franklin expedition mummies may be lost to history. We may never know what their final days on the ice were like, but we’ll always have the haunting images of their frozen faces to give us a clue.
Parks Canada Guided Tour Inside HMS Terror