B.C.’s Cracroft Islands linked to lost Franklin Expedition

Last month, after 170 years, Parks Canada confirmed the discovery of Sir John Franklin’s flagship HMS Erebus.

One of the greatest tragedies of modern history is recalled midway between Kelsey Bay and Port Hardy by Johnstone Strait’s Sophia Islands, Cracroft (designated a "locality" in the Gazetteer of Canada), Cracroft Inlet, Cracroft Point and Cracroft Islands.

All honour Sophia Cracroft, niece of Sir John Franklin who, with two ships and 128 men, sailed into oblivion in 1845.

It’s a story oft-told and one of renewed interest because of recent discoveries which have enabled scientists to determine what went wrong for the Arctic explorers.

In 1861, when Miss Cracroft and her aunt, Lady Jane Franklin, visited Victoria, there was no question of survivors, although it had taken a decade for government and private search expeditions to confirm the worst. Sophia was 44 and unmarried, having devoted herself to her aunt as travelling companion and secretary.

Originally, Lady Franklin’s world travels had been motivated by the need to sustain public support for further search expeditions. As hope for survivors faded, she’d focused on learning what happened to her husband and his men. Because the British Admiralty balked at the mounting costs, she sought the aid of other governments and private interests. By the time of their first Victoria visit, in February 1861, Franklin’s fate was known and his widow and niece were paying a social visit to Capt. George H. Richards (namesake for our own Mount Richards). Then serving with the Northwest Boundary Commission, he’d distinguished himself in a major search for the lost explorers.

He had, in fact, been Lady Franklin’s first choice for commander-in-chief of the privately-funded research expedition that solved the Franklin puzzle, but he’d been unavailable because of his work as chief astronomer and survey to the Boundary Commission.

History is indebted to Sophia Cracroft for her letters, written in the form of a journal. In them this "shrewd observer of men and manners," with a sometimes caustic wit and eagle eye for human foibles, recorded their travels as VIPs. Inevitably, she carried her social and religious biases with her as so much baggage. It slants her observations and can make them seem to be mean-spirited or petty. Class-conscious, a devout Anglican, she disapproved of Jews, Catholics and Mormons. Pro-British, she disliked the Irish and Americans.

She looked down on North American Indians and wrote warmly of Negroes and Chinese immigrants (while deploring the latter’s "heathen element"). It would be asking the impossible of a woman of her corsetted upbringing and time in history to be anything but a snob. How she pitied the woman of Fort Victoria not having servants! (She did concede that this reality made frontier wives dependent upon each other, thus forging strong friendships.)

Most of the American women they met were, in her view, vain and vulgar, spoke with a "twang" (which Sophia delighted in mimicking for her friends by holding her nose as she spoke), and too forward. Worse, they shared their husbands’ unbounded optimism in a future in which they were sure, once the Civil War was settled, B.C. would become their newest state.

With the American occupation of the San Juan Islands, she shared her aunt’s fear that the British government failed to appreciate the threat that American expansionism held for a fledgling Canada. The solution, she believed, "must be laid in emigration from England, or at least from English colonies, so as to absorb (or at least outweigh) the American element".

And what did others think of Lady Jane and Sophia? A member of the British foreign office in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands wrote that, "of all the ladies that I have ever met with, they are just the ladies that suit me; they are of high mettle and breeding – not prudes, humdrum, and pernickety-nackety"! The Islands’ Queen Emma, however, resented "the odious Miss Cracroft’s advice on correct dress and deportment".

In 1870 Lady Jane and Sophia returned to B.C. and, again, Sophia recorded their experiences and observations in a series of letters. Written nine years later, they weren’t intended for publication. It’s interesting to speculate how the outspoken Miss Cracroft would have edited her "memoirs" had she known that the B.C. Provincial Archives would release them in book form a century later.