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Rare German Map of the Northwest Passage

Scarce separately-published map of the Arctic Region, extending from Baffin Bay to Banks Straits and Prince Patrick Island.

The map was published by August Petermann. Petermann was trained and worked for much of his life in Germany, but he began his cartographic career in Britain (Edinburgh and London) and advised many of the British Arctic expeditions of the 1840s and early 1850s.

This interest in exploration is evident, as the map is littered with notes about which explorers first encountered which islands. There is also a color-coded key highlighting the voyages of:

  • Red: Sir Edward E. Belcher -- August 14, 1852 to June 22, 1853
  • Yellow: G.H. Richarsd & S.H. Osborn -- April 10, 1853 to July 15, 1853
  • Orange: F.L. McClintock -- Apirl 4, 1853 to July 18, 1853
  • Blue: G.F. Mecham -- April 4, 1853 to July 6, 1853
  • Purple: R.V. Hamilton -- April 27 to June 21, 1853.

The map also references earlier expeditions. For example, the title of the map references the Parry Islands. These are now known as the Queen Elizabeth Islands. Originally, they were named for British Arctic explorer William Edward Parry who, in 1819, got as far as Melville Island before being blocked by ice. The next ship to get that far west was part of the Edward Belcher expedition, also referenced on this map.

In addition to showing this section of the western stretch of the Northwest Passage, which reaches the Pacific via Banks Strait and a voyage around Alaska and through the Bering Strait, this map also has an inset of Erebus Bay, based on then-recent reports by Commodore W. J. S. Pullen in 1854. This bay and nearby Beechey Island are where remnants of the Franklin expedition were discovered. There are also two views on either side of the oval title cartouche.

A detail of particular note are the tiny ships, one steam and one sail, in Melville Sound. These are the Intrepid and the Resolute shown in their positions of May 15, 1854. These were the ships commanded by Edward Belcher on his search for Franklin; he also commanded the Assistance, North Star, and Pioneer. They did not find Franklin and his crew, but they did rescue the crew of the Investigator, which had been stuck in the ice for years. Belcher became nervous with his ships stuck in the ice in the winters of 1852 and 1853. In the summer of 1854, he ordered four of the five ships abandoned and returned to Britain.

Belcher was court-martialed for abandoning the ships, but was ultimately exonerated. However, one of the ships, the Resolute, managed to float free. It was found by an American whaler off Baffin Island—it had drifted 1,200 miles. Congress ordered Resolute restored and returned to Britain as a gift in 1856. The ship reentered naval service and, upon retirement, timbers from it were used to create three desks. One of these was given to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. It has been used by every President since except for Johnson, Nixon, and Ford.

All of the voyages shown here were curious about the Northwest Passage, the geographic obsession of the nineteenth century, but they were also searching for any evidence of the fate of John Franklin and his ships, Terror and Erebus.

John Franklin’s final expedition

Franklin was a career naval officer who participated in the Battle of Trafalgar at the age of 21. Most of career was spent in Arctic exploration, however; Franklin participated in three Arctic expeditions before his fateful final foray. First, he served in the Dorothea, under Captain Buchan, and then was put in command of the Trent while they tried to reach the North Pole. Then, he led two overland expeditions in 1819-1822 and 1825-27 seeking the Northwest Passage. While the first voyage was marked by privation, the second saw Franklin and his men chart over 1,000 miles of Arctic coastline.

In 1845, Franklin set out in command of Terror and Erebus. He had suggested the voyage in search of the Northwest Passage and the government fit out the ships with state-of-the-art technology and instruments. They left Greenhithe on May 19, 1845 and were sighted by a whaler off of Baffin Island in late July. After that, the ships were never seen afloat again, nor were the men seen alive.

By 1848, it was clear that the expedition was lost. No less than 39 missions set out to find his men and ships over several decades; they hailed from Britain, the United States, France, and other countries. Many were spurred on by the advocacy of Jane Franklin, who worked tirelessly to raise funds and interest in finding her husband.

Later voyages pieced together a rough approximation of what happened to Terror and Erebus. The ships sailed up the Wellington Channel and then headed south toward Beechey Island, where they wintered. In spring 1846, the ships reached the northernmost point of King William Island, but then were trapped in the ice in the McClintock Channel.

By the spring of 1847, a small party reached Point Victory by traveling over the ice. There, they left a notice of their progress. John Franklin died in June of that year. The ships, still in the ice, were pulled south. The new commander of the expedition, Captain Crozier, decided to abandon the vessels. He updated the Point Victory note before the 105 survivors set out for the Great Fish River; most died on the march, near the west coast of King William Island.

Early voyages that set out to rescue Franklin brought back artifacts and fragments, but it was still a mystery as to the location of the men and the ships. In 1854, Dr John Rae, reported Inuit accounts of white men perishing to the west of the Back River.

In 1859, the Victory Point Note was found, the only piece of paper recovered about the expedition. It reads:

28th of May 1847H.M.S ships 'Erebus' and 'Terror' wintered in the Ice in lat. 70 05' N., long. 98 23' W.Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island, in lat. 74 43' 28" N., long. 91 39' 15" W., after having ascended Wellington Channel to lat. 77°, and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island.Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition.All well.Party consisting of 2 officers and 6 men left the ships on Monday 24th May, 1847.GM. GORE, Lieut.CHAS. F. DES VOEUX, Mate.[second annotation]April 25, 1848 - H.M. ships 'Terror' and 'Erebus' were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69˚ 37' 42" N., long. 98˚ 41' W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847 ; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.(Signed)JAMES FITZJAMES,Captain H.M.S. Erebus.(Signed)F.R.M. CROZIER,Captain & Senior Officer.and start (on) to-morrow, 26th, for Back's Fish River.

Only in the twentieth century would bodies from the voyage be found. In 1981, forensic anthropologists led by Dr Owen Beattie located human remains on King William Sound. This and other remains revealed high levels of lead in the remains, leading to the theory that the crew were poisoned from the tinned food they had brought to survive the Arctic conditions.

In the twenty-first century, after over 160 years, Erebus and Terror were finally located in 2014 and 2016 respectively. However, they were much farther south than expected, although precisely where Inuit reports had placed them. Their locations indicate that at least some of the crew possibly returned to the ships, or else that the ice floe deposited them much farther away than previously imagined. The mystery continues.  

Condition Description
Folding map.
Glyndwr Williams, Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). KAP
Augustus Herman Petermann Biography

August Heinrich Petermann (1822-1878) is a renowned German cartographer of the nineteenth century. Petermann studied cartography at the Geographical Art-School in Potsdam before traveling to Edinburgh to work with Dr. A. Keith Johnston on an English edition of Berghaus’ Physical Atlas. Two years later he moved to London, where he made maps and advised exploratory expeditions as they set off to explore the interior of Africa and the Arctic.

In 1854, Petermann returned to Germany to be Director of the Geographical Institute of Justus Perthes in Gotha. There, he was the editor of the Geographische Mittheilungen and Stieler’s Handatlas. The Royal Geographical Society of London awarded him their Gold Medal in 1860. He continued his interest in exploration in Germany, fundraising for the German Exploring Expeditions of 1868 and 1869-70, which sought an open Arctic sea. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1878.