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In October 1821, Franklin survived the NWT (just). In October 2021, should his name survive here?

Last modified: October 22, 2021 at 11:25am

Two hundred years ago this month, some Englishmen far from home were struggling for survival in the Northwest Territories’ barrenlands. Now, Yellowknife’s main street is named for the man in charge.

John Franklin would later be knighted and, more famously, launched a doomed quest to discover the Northwest Passage in the 1840s that killed 129 men. Less known, but nearly as grisly, is the story of his first overland expedition.

Leaving England in 1819, Franklin led a crew of around 20 men through the Northwest Territories to try to map the Arctic coast. Poor planning, harsh weather, lean hunting years, and his apparent disregard for numerous warnings from Indigenous peoples made for disastrous results. 

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The group headed north from Fort Chipewyan in the summer of 1820. October 2021 is the 200th anniversary of the expedition’s return journey. To mark the occasion, Yellowknife resident Rajiv Rawat has created an online exhibit that charts Franklin’s course. 

Rawat previously worked for the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre and now works for the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment. He told Cabin Radio he created the exhibit in his spare time.

“I started doing my research on Franklin and realized that we have a lot of the resources in Yellowknife,” Rawat said. 

“I thought, OK, now I have all this stuff, so I might as well get it organized and present it for whatever purposes the public might find interesting.”

Rajiv Rawat created an online exhibit about Franklin’s perilous overland journey. Photo: Submitted

The website includes interactive maps setting out Franklin’s route, a timeline that compares different versions of events, and links to excerpts from journals Franklin kept.

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There is even a form of murder-mystery game that explores what happened in October 1821, when the group was returning over the barrenlands – and when hints of murder and cannibalism began.

“They’re struggling to get back from the Arctic Coast and they start falling like flies,” Rawat explained.

Their resources long since exhausted and their grasp of direction tenuous at best, the party’s return was marred by severe hunger and threats of mutiny. Franklin’s journal entries suggest the men resorted to eating their leather boots. 

“By the time Franklin got to Fort Enterprise, which is 230 kilometres northeast of here, basically, there’s nothing … no food,” Rawat continued. 

“That’s when they settle in for this slow starvation.”

Franklin’s party surrounded by Yellowknives Dene canoes travelling across Prosperous Lake. This illustration was produced by Lieutenant Robert Hood, who died on October 20, 1821.

The group was eventually rescued by Chief Akaitcho of the Yellowknives Dene, among others, who nursed the Europeans back to health and led them to safety. Even so, fewer than half of Franklin’s party survived. 

“It is a story of survival,” Rawat said. “It’s an incredible adventure … and the horror component has its own allure, which I think is suited for Halloween.”

Franklin’s colonial legacy

Franklin perished on his infamous final journey in 1845, but his name did not. Two of Yellowknife’s central features – Sir John Franklin High School, where many of the city’s youth go to school, and Franklin Avenue, the city’s main street – are named for him. 

Chief Edward Sangris of the Yellowknives Dene community of Dettah, across the bay from Yellowknife, said he and many other community members have no attachment to Franklin and the colonial history he represents.

“He’s just another explorer like Columbus,” Sangris said. “Franklin just passed through here – he didn’t stay.”

The history of the Indigenous people in the area is far more important, Sangris said, as their communities have been here for millennia and continue today.

Chief Akaitcho, for example, remains an important figure to the Yellowknives Dene. He led hunting parties to harvest caribou and feed his people, and made a peace treaty with Chief Edzo in 1823 that ended decades of conflict between the Tłı̨chǫ and Yellowknives Dene.

Chief Fred Sangris of Ndilǫ, a Yellowknives Dene community at Yellowknife’s northern periphery, described Akaitcho as “a great chief and a great warrior.”

Chief of Dettah Edward Sangris. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio
Fred Sangris. Photo: Submitted

“Because he was a great warrior, we are still protecting his grave today,” he explained. “Through hard times, through famine, through wars, Akaitcho did a really great deed for the Yellowknives Dene.”

Both chiefs agreed Franklin’s namesakes in Yellowknife should be changed to names that have significance for the Yellowknives Dene. (Franklin is celebrated elsewhere. A statue of Franklin occupies a market square in his hometown of Spilsby in the English county of Lincolnshire.)

“There were many other important leaders,” Fred Sangris said. “They were never mentioned in history, but we still talk about them.” 

Listen to Fred Sangris telling the story of Franklin from the Yellowknives Dene perspective.

For Rawat, the story of Franklin’s 1821 rescue by the Yellowknives Dene can serve as a starting point in understanding the history of colonialism in the Northwest Territories and its continued impacts.  

“The explorers are transitory but in some ways, are kind-of like a bellwether for where things are going to move towards … completely rearranging trade relations, basically sucking up all the resources,” he said.

“The Franklin expedition provides a very good entry point into that story.”

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