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Trent Alumnus Finds Burial Site of Franklin Expedition Officer

November 14, 2018

Dr. Douglas Stenton & colleagues use DNA profiles to help identify Northwest Passage crew members

Alumnus Dr. Douglas Stenton writing notes in the snow

A Trent alumnus has helped identify the final resting place of human remains from the Franklin Expedition and hopes to soon be able to add to a list of confirmed crew members from the ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage.

Dr. Douglas Stenton ’80, former heritage director for the territory of Nunavut, used comparisons between present-day and historical maps – as well as modern metal detectors – as a means of continuing the search for Franklin Expedition graves. He and his colleagues, including Dr. Anne Keenleyside of Trent University, will now study the remains to further confirm their findings.

Dr. Stenton and his team also unearthed artifacts believed to belong to expedition crew members. The recent finds are the latest for the decorated archeologist.

“It’s been 10 years since we started working on this. In my former capacity as the director of heritage for the government of Nunavut, my role was to lead the terrestrial archeological investigation, working collaboratively with Parks Canada, who were doing the marine work with several other partners, notably the Canadian Coast Guard, which has provided myself and my colleagues with exceptional logistical support.”

In 2015, Dr. Stenton was honoured with the Polar Medal, an award that celebrates Canada's Northern heritage and gives recognition to persons who render extraordinary services in the polar regions and Canada's North. He was honoured for his contributions to the “discovery of the century” as part of the team that found the underwater shipwreck of the HMS Erebus near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut.

While he retired last year, Dr. Stenton still had interest in further archeological work in the area – as did the government of Nunavut. One component he and colleagues, Professor Keenleyside and Dr. Robert Park of the University of Waterloo, have been focusing on is a DNA analysis of Franklin Expedition remains. They have been building a database, and attempting to identify some of the individuals. They now have DNA profiles for 24 members of the expedition. According to Dr. Stenton, some are conclusive matches with samples on file.

“There are three that come to mind for which there are either tentative or confirmed identification of individuals. Whenever we have the opportunity to build upon that, I’m going to take it. This is what happened this year.”

Besides the human remains, the site has yielded three metal buckles, 10 gilt buttons and remnants of an 11th made of mother of pearl. It is likely that such items were only worn by officers or senior-ranking members of Franklin’s crew.

According to Dr. Stenton, there is still work to be done.

“The artifacts have been sent to the Canadian Conservation Institute for treatment, the skeletal remains will then be sent to Trent for examination and analysis by Prof. Keenleyside.”

The findings build upon the work of 19th-century archaeologists, who visited the same area along the west coast of King William Island in 1879. The disappearance of Sir John Franklin, his ships and crews is one of the greatest mysteries in the history of exploration. Missions to find the expedition ships, the HMS Erabus and HMS Terror, began in the years after their disappearance in 1845.