The purpose of the Franklin Expedition of the 1840s was to find the northwest passage, a sea route across the top of North America. The two ships dispatched to sail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific never returned.
And the Franklin Expedition became legendary as the mystery of what happened persisted for more than a decade.
The expedition was commanded by Sir John Franklin, a British naval officer who had served in the Napoleonic Wars and also as the governor of the penal colony at Van Diemen's Land.
Franklin set sail from England on May 19, 1845, commanding two ships, Erebus and Terror. The ships had been built as bomb ketches, or platforms for seaborne howitzers, and were thus extremely sturdy and capable of holding up against the ice they would encounter in polar regions.
Franklin's ships were last sighted by another vessel at Baffin Bay at the end of July 1845. After that, no word was heard from Franklin or his men.
An expedition sent to search for Franklin in 1850 found an island where the crews had camped in the winter of 1845-46, and the graves of three crewmen who had died. But it wasn't until 1859 that a search party found a cairn, a pile of stones with messages stowed inside.
The dispatches left in the cairn revealed that Franklin had died in June 1847, along with other crew members.
The ships had gotten stuck in the Arctic ice, and the men most likely starved. The officers and crew who put the written messages in the cairn had set out to walk southward toward civilization, but none survived.
Modern research has indicated that Franklin's men may have been doomed by lead poisoning, which they contracted from food preserved in cheaply constructed tin cans.
Gratitude is extended to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for use of the portrait of Sir John Franklin.