The Franklin expedition has been in the news again recently, as the wreck of the HMS Terror was recently located by the Arctic Research Foundation. This follows the discovery of the wreck of the HMS Erebus by the same foundation in 2014.

One thing I have never quite understood about the expedition: why didn't the explorers "go native" and live among the Inuit to survive? The Wikipedia article on the expedition notes that

Two expeditions between 1860 and 1869 by Charles Francis Hall ... found camps, graves, and relics on the southern coast of King William Island, but none of the Franklin expedition survivors he believed would be found among the Inuit. Though he concluded that all of the Franklin crew were dead, he believed that the official expedition records would yet be found under a stone cairn. With the assistance of his guides Ebierbing and Tookoolito, Hall gathered hundreds of pages of Inuit testimony. Among these materials are accounts of visits to Franklin's ships, and an encounter with a party of white men on the southern coast of King William Island near Washington Bay.

So there were definitely Inuit people in the area, and it was certainly conceivable to their contemporaries that the explorers would have joined Inuit society out of self-preservation. The Inuit oral tradition is also quite strong (Inuit stories were quite helpful in locating the two ships), so presumably if a white man had joined an Inuit tribe, such a story would have been preserved; but I haven't been able to find any mention of such a story in my (limited) web research.

This may be an impossible question to answer definitively, but are there any plausible reasons why the Franklin crew chose to remain apart from the natives, even though it led to their eventual demise?

  • 1
    I do not remember the source, but I also believe it had to do with the fact they felt they could not learn anything from the inuit and had a sort of racist better than them attitude. If I can find the source I will put it here.
    – ed.hank
    Sep 13, 2016 at 14:37
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    A question that needs to be asked is whether the Inuit would have accepted them.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 7, 2017 at 6:10

1 Answer 1


It seems likely lead poisoning was a factor (if not the definitive factor) in why Franklin's men did not approach the Inuit.

Over the course of months, Franklin and his men were poisoned either by the lead solder leaching into their canned food or the solder from their water-boiler. Chronic lead poisoning causes brain damage, which results in disordered thinking, stupor, and impairments in memory and concentration. We see evidence of this in the items recovered from the "boat place", which is where some of the survivors died trying to walk to the nearest Hudson Bay outpost. The lifeboat the men were dragging was loaded with things like soap, combs, books, and slippers. No rational man would try to drag a lifeboat weighted down with such things across a thousand kilometers of tundra.

Simply put, by the time Franklin's men realized they needed help (when their food ran low), they were too demented seek it.

  • This answer would be improved by sources/citations.
    – MCW
    Mar 7, 2017 at 9:50
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    The information on chronic lead poisoning and the faulty solder in the canned food is common knowledge. The faulty water-boiler hypothesis comes from William Battersby's "Identification of the Probable Source of the Lead Poisoning Observed in Members of the Franklin Expedition". Lastly, the information on the "boat place" comes from the Wikipedia page. My conclusion about lead being the definitive factor is speculation, but it's consistent with the available evidence.
    – N Smith
    Mar 7, 2017 at 20:07
  • Please edit that into the answer; comments are ephemeral, and I think that the answer, supported by your evidence, is really quite strong.
    – MCW
    Mar 8, 2017 at 1:36

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