Historical Significance: The Franklin Expedition

This route, in addition to being of scientific interest to our group, has historical significance as well. The section of this route from Big Lake to Winter Lake follows the same path as that taken by Lt. John Franklin on his Coppermine expedition of 1819 to 1822. On our route we will travel past, and undoubtedly stop at, the site of Fort Enterprise. Fort Enterprise, now just a small collection of cut logs, was where the Franklin expedition spent the winter of 1820-1821 and where they were rescued by the Yellowknives at the end of their journey. The goal of this expedition was to map the northern coast of Canada as part of the British desire to find the Northwest Passage.


Lt. John Franklin

The expedition began on May 23rd, 1819, when Franklin and his crew left the British Isles on a Hudson’s Bay Company ship. Franklin’s expedition reached York Factory, on the southwest coast of Hudson Bay on August 30th. Issues with supplies soon became apparent due to the fact that the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company were rivals and cooperation between the two trading companies was impossible. Franklin’s expedition traveled overland to Cumberland House on the modern day border of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which at the time was a just small garrison of Hudson’s Bay men. This is where they would spend the winter of 1819-1820.

Franklin Map 1

From arrival at York Factory to Cumberland House across modern day Manitoba.


First winter at Cumberland House.

Franklin Map 2

From Cumberland House across modern day Saskatchewan.

In January 1820 the expedition traveled to Fort Chipewyan, arriving in late March after difficult travel in freezing conditions. There they recruited sixteen voyageurs, leaving for Great Slave Lake in July. Travel at this point of the expedition was mostly by canoe, and Franklin was able to reach Fort Providence (near present day Yellowknife) after ten days on the water. At this point, Franklin met with the Yellowknives (a local aboriginal tribe) and was able to trade for hunting and guiding assistance until reaching Inuit lands.

Franklin Map 3

Towards Fort Chipewyan and the route to Fort Providence.

After this meeting, in the summer of 1820, Franklin’s expedition traveled north up the Yellowknife River until reaching a point on Winter Lake. This site, named Fort Enterprise by Franklin, was picked by Akaitcho (the leader of the Yellowknives) as the expedition’s winter quarters for 1820-1821. The second winter was tough, with food and ammunition shortages creating issues. The deteriorating situation led to unrest within the group, with some voyageurs practically in open rebellion.


Akaitcho and his son.


Winter at Fort Enterprise.

On June 4th, 1821, Franklin and his group left for the mouth of the Coppermine River. Plans for their return were vague and up in the air and thus there was uneasiness in the group. The Arctic Ocean was seen on July 14th, where an Inuit camp was located and the Yellowknive guides returned south. The Inuit fled the area and thus Franklin did not have an opportunity to communicate and trade for supplies. Those that were returning south were advised to stock the route and Fort Enterprise itself with food for the returning expedition.


Camp at the mouth of the Coppermine River.

At the mouth of the Coppermine River, near modern day Kugluktuk, Franklin’s expedition set off to the east (along mainland Canada’s northern coast) towards Bathurst Inlet. Franklin mapped 500 miles of coastline, but found that rough seas made a return journey to the Coppermine River impractical. Thus, in late August, Franklin and his group canoed as far as they could down the Hood River (outlet at Bathurst Inlet) and then began overland travel across the Barren Lands.


Last camp on the Arctic Ocean before heading inland.

Winter arrived in early September and the expedition quickly ran short on food. Hunting was scarce and the vegetation provided little in terms of food (besides lichens termed tripe de roche). The overland travel was extremely difficult on the voyageurs, who left the canoes, fishing nets and other heavy equipment behind in order to save energy. On September 26th, the expedition reached the Coppermine River. Without canoes, however, it was impossible to actually cross the large and swift river in order to reach Fort Enterprise. After 10 days stuck on the shores of the Coppermine, a voyageur with some strength was able to construct a small one-man canoe so that each man could cross the river one by one before the makeshift raft broke down.


Travel through the Barren Lands.

Fort Enterprise was only a week or so away, but that proved too much of a journey for some of the weaker members of the expedition who stayed behind. Franklin and a few of the stronger members of his party reached Fort Enterprise on October 12th. Unfortunately it was deserted and no food had been stocked for the expedition. Those in the party who were able made their way to Fort Providence and suspected aboriginal locations in search of food while those who remained waited at Fort Enterprise and did what they could for food and warmth. Of those who were too weak to originally make it Fort Enterprise and stayed behind, only two of the British officers survived and made it to Fort Enterprise on October 29th. Three of the other voyageurs and British officer Robert Hood had been killed by a fourth voyageur who had resorted to cannibalism for food (who was then himself shot and killed by one of the surviving British officers).

Franklin Map 4

From Fort Providence to Fort Enterprise and up the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean and back over the Barren Lands. Red circle show the location of our field expedition this summer in relation to the historical Franklin route. 

On November 7th, Akaitcho and the Yellowknives arrived at Fort Enterprise, bringing with them food and supplies. The expedition survivors, having been treated back to health by the Yellowknives, were able to leave for Fort Enterprise and arrived at Fort Providence on December 11th. Akaitcho explained that the lack of ammunition, hunting accidents and the fact that the Yellowknives did not believe anyone in the expedition would survive what they believed to be a foolhardy journey led to the lack of support at Fort Enterprise. In the end, eleven of the nineteen men who were part of the expedition had died and only 500 miles of coastline had been mapped. Despite this, however, Franklin was greeted as a celebrity in England upon his return in 1822 and praised for his courage in dealing with an expedition always on the verge of disaster.


  • John Franklin: Traveller on Undiscovered Seas (Wilson, 2001)
  • To the Arctic by Canoe 1819-1821 (Hood, ed. Houston, 1974)
  • The Man Who Mapped the Arctic (Steele, 2003)
  • Arctic Artist (Back, ed. Houston, 1994)
  • Arctic Ordeal (Richardson, ed. Houston, 1984)
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