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The Inuit Were Right: Shipwreck Find Confirms 168-Year-Old Oral History

Since 1846, shipwreck-hunters have been looking for a vessel that sank in Arctic waters -- turns out the Inuit elders knew where it was all along.
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The discovery of a ship that had been missing since 1846 on September 2, 2014 had at least partially solved one of Canada's favorite mysteries; what's more, its location confirmed the veracity of Inuit accounts that never squared with the accepted version of what happened.

In 1845, two ships—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—under the command of Sir John Franklin set sail from England. Franklin's expedition was headed for the Arctic waters above Canada, with the goal of completing the charting of the Northwest Passage. The expedition never returned. Both ships became icebound in 1846, and the crew set out on foot. All eventually died. Those were the basic details of the story, but there existed a controversial extra element: testimony of Inuit hunters, handed down orally, that the ships were seen off the northwest coast of King William Island. While one of the ships was crushed in ice and sank in deep water, the Inuit said, the other drifted southward, to shallower water. What's more, there were still sailors on board.

RELATED: Science Catches Up With Inuit Oral History, "Discovering" Ancient Paleo-Eskimos

The Inuit testimony was discounted by many, and for decades—now generations—the final fate of the Franklin wrecks was unknown, or at least unverified.


Erebus was discovered, in shallow waters in an area called Utjulik, just as the Inuit oral accounts had maintained, 10 meters off the coast of King William Island in the icy waters of the Canadian Arctic littered with artifacts as reported by The Guardian.

"For us Inuit it means that oral history is very strong in knowledge, not only for searching for Franklin's ships but also for environment and other issues," Louie Kamookak, an Inuit historian, told CBC News in 2014 following the discovery.

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David Woodman, author of the book Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, told the Toronto Star that "This is a vindication of the Inuit testimony, definitely." Some of the inconsistencies in the Inuit accounts, Woodman explained, were due to poor translation of the Inuktitut language by white interviewers and a lack of understanding of how the Inuit measured time or distance. Once all the details of the discovery are made public, Woodman looks forward to "reverse engineer[ing] what the Inuit actually meant, as opposed to what we were told they said."

In 2016, the second ship among the Sir John Franklin expedition, Terror, was discovered and in better condition. The second discovery came as an exhibition of the initial artifacts found on Erebus and along the shores was being prepared in Canada, The Guardian reported.

On Friday, July 14, a major exhibition created by the Canadian Museum of History, the National Maritime Museum, and Parks Canada is set to open at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London and will be on display until January 7, 2018..

The exhibition will tell the tragic stories of the 128 crew members who perished on the polar exploration.

To date, Terror has only been explored by robot submarines and archaeologist Marc Andre Bernier hopes to be the first to explore the ship this year.

Here is raw video from the find released by Parks Canada:

This story was originally published September 11, 2014 and has been updated.