DNA Identifies Sailor From Doomed 1845 Expedition to Find the Famed Northwest Passage

DNA Evidence Has Identified the Remains of a Sailor on Northwest Passage Expedition in 1845.
DNA Evidence has identified the Remains of a sailor on Northwest Passage expedition in 1845.University of Waterloo

For the first time, a member of Sir John Franklin's legendary expedition has been identified. through DNA. The damned voyage of two ships to find the Northwest Passage has captivated history since both vessels disappeared.

For nearly two centuries, the fate of two ships on a doomed odyssey to find the fabled Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic has fascinated historians.

Led by Sir John Franklin in 1845, the expedition of two British sailing ships, the Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror, became steeped in lore when both vessels seemingly vanished in the frozen waters and ice cliffs of what is now the Canadian territory of Nunavut.

For the first time, researchers in Canada have now identified the remains of someone on the cursed trip — Warrant Officer John Gregory, who traveled on the Erebus in his first trip at sea, using DNA and genealogical analyses. 

That testing linked Gregory to descendant born in 1982. Jonathan Gregory of Port Elizabeth in South Africa, recently received notice that a DNA swab he had sent to Canadian researchers confirmed he is great-great-great grandson of John Gregory.

“The news came by email and I was at work,” the stunned ancestor told Canada's Waterloo Region Record. "I literally needed to hold on to my seat when I was reading.”

Gregory’s remains were excavated in 2013 from King William Island, which is located about 50 miles south of the spot where sailors deserted their ice-encased ships in search of help on land. He probably died within a month in the godforsaken frozen territory, researchers said.

Though some crew members have been identified over the years from marked graves, DNA and genealogy searches had never before been used. The technique is similar to processes used in recent years to identify cold case victims and killers.

Charles Dickens, Jules Verne and Mark Twain wrote about the mysterious disappearance of the expedition. Theories abounded throughout history about what happened to its ill-fated members enduring temperatures of minus-58 degrees Fahrenheit, from cannibalism to botulism to poor leadership that left them adrift in brutal terrain.

The expedition was only one of numerous missions in a water race to find the long-rumored Northwest Passage, running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific in the unforgiving Arctic region of upper Canada. The route was seen as the Holy Grail of a lucrative sea trade to Asia.

Drawing from a rescue mission to find the doomed expedition after it vanished in 1845. - Handout

More than 40 missions were dispatched to find Franklin and his 128-member crew, leading to the ultimate conquering of the waterway by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in a three-year voyage that began in 1903.

After docking his small herring boat near an island in the Yukon, Amundsen skied 500 miles to the city of Eagle, Alaska, where he sent a telegram announcing his victory, and then skied back to his crew.

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