New transcriptions of the Beechey Island gravemarkers.

By Logan Zachary & Alison Freebairn.
January 21st, 2024.

Photographs by Logan Zachary.  Braine, Hartnell, & Torrington’s gravemarkers. 1846. Franklin Expedition. Iluvilik/ᐃᓗᕕᓕᒃ (Beechey Island). From the Government of Nunavut, Heritage Collections. Accession Nos: 979.7.99, -.47, -.101a.

Summary:  This article demonstrates that the most accurate Beechey gravemarkers transcriber, not previously recognized, was Peter Cormac Sutherland.  Anyone understandably dubious of new gravemarker transcriptions coming in 2024 should in future be quoting from and citing Sutherland.  However, additional analysis of the Derbyshire graves photograph and the surviving wooden gravemarkers in Canada suggests further refinement of Sutherland’s work.

This is the first installment in a series, published on January 21st, 2024.


“...the still, quiet desolation of all around me was unbroken, save by... the loud beating of my heart and quick-drawn breathing, ere I could gather courage to advance and read the inscriptions...”
   — Robert A. Goodsir, at the discovery of the Beechey graves.

{ ▽ “HM SHIP.” Torrington’s gravemarker. }   

“Sacred to the memory of John Torrington.”  “Consider your ways.”  “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.”  The inscriptions from the Beechey Island gravemarkers are some of the most oft-repeated and instantly recognizable phrases in the history of the Franklin Expedition.  And little wonder: with so little paper ever recovered from the lost expedition, these gravemarker inscriptions represent a significant proportion of what writing has survived — lengthier than the first entry on the Victory Point Record.

For example, they happen to tell us where leading stoker John Torrington died: “on board HMS Terror”.

Or, was it written as “on board of HMS Terror”?  Or was it written “on board of HM Ship Terror”?  

In fact, depending on who you consult, all of the above phrasings are correct.  Because despite the prominence and continued repetition of these gravemarker inscriptions, there has never been any consensus on their exact wording.  The substance of the inscriptions isn’t in question, but the spellings and even minor word choices become debatable as one looks closer.  For Braine’s Bible verse alone, there are four wording variations to choose from.

You may return to primary sources, the first accounts of the 1850–51 searchers who discovered Franklin’s winter camp and its graveyard.  But there you are confronted with the problem of deciding which one of those early gravemarker transcribers to trust.

▽ Some early gravemarker transcribers: Kane, Markham, Osborn }   

Cyriax used Osborn’s transcriptions.  The modern replacement gravemarkers use Kane.  The most recent scholarship recommends McDougall.  And this study will advance another: Sutherland.

The issue is further confused by nearly all historians not citing which transcription they are presenting — and further, by mixing in their own custom alterations.  Beattie & Geiger’s landmark Frozen In Time appears to have utilized Kane leavened with Osborn, but does not comment on the decision.  Even the great Cyriax altered his usage of Osborn’s transcriptions, with modifications as frivolous as writing out “25” as “twenty-five” (Hartnell’s age).

It was only after three bodies had been raised, autopsied, and reburied on Beechey Island that researchers began to articulate a much simpler question:  What, precisely, was the nature and history of the above-ground memorials on the island?  This seemingly straightforward query has engendered a half dozen research articles since 1993 (Hobson), with the most recent coming in 2017 (Hansen).

Even then, the spotlight did not swing towards the Franklin inscriptions themselves until 2010.  In that year, researcher Todd Hansen had published an article analyzing the Beechey Island memorials in Polar Record.  Then, later that October, Hansen did something novel: he wrote back to Polar Record and changed his mind.  Hansen switched his evaluation of the most authoritative gravemarker transcriber from Kane to McDougall:

“...comparison of the inscriptions with both Kane and the photo of the Torrington headboard in Powell now lead me to conclude that McDougall’s rather than Kane’s version of the Franklin headboards inscriptions are probably the most accurate of the contemporary accounts.”
[Hansen 2012.]

To the present authors’ knowledge, this was the first example of published comparative analysis of the Beechey gravemarker transcriptions.  Nor did Hansen stop there.  For his following article, Hansen travelled to a Government of Nunavut archive in Yellowknife for the next logical step: to attempt to bring the original gravemarkers into his analysis.

{ ▽ Photograph from Allen Young’s 1875 Pandora expedition. }   

One would initially think that these wooden tablets might be ‘the last word’ on the subject.  But though removed from Beechey Island for preservation in the 1970s, the original wooden gravemarkers are today significantly weathered and worn.  They endured over a century exposed to the Arctic climate and Arctic fauna (a searcher in 1852 reported a huge polar bear “continually sitting on one of the graves”), with questionable re-paintings and possibly re-carvings of their vanishing inscriptions by later visitors.

Nonetheless, wielding “a flashlight at a shallow angle,” in 2016 Hansen was able to discern enough to correct two words in McDougall’s transcriptions, and to demonstrate a flaw in Kane’s transcriptions.  Hansen’s new findings were published in 2017.  But rather than the first of such attempts, in a way Hansen’s would be the lone example of its kind, completed just before a significant shift in the landscape.  Just two years later, a paramount new source would come to light, found on the other side of the planet from Beechey Island.

In the English Midlands, in the county of Derbyshire, sits the county town of Matlock.  Here at the county’s record office resides a collection of Franklin family possessions, bequeathed by the descendants of Franklin’s daughter Eleanor.  In 2019, Assistant Conservator Clare Mosley at the Derbyshire Record Office recognized something of significance in one of the Franklin scrapbooks: a very early photograph of the Beechey Island gravemarkers — with their inscriptions visible.

{ ▽ Derbyshire Record Office, D8760/F/LIB/10/1/1. }   

Mosley had the photograph published online through the Derbyshire Record Office, and it immediately became the subject of a Russell Potter article at Visions of the North.  Potter dwelt in particular on the photograph’s upending of modern visualizations of the gravemarkers, as being either white-painted or bare wood.  In the Derbyshire photograph, the gravemarkers appear black against the lighter rocks of the island’s shore — just as early sources had reported they were.

The door was thus open for a new evaluation of the Beechey gravemarker inscriptions, repeating Hansen’s attempt to decipher the original gravemarkers in person, but now with the Derbyshire photograph as a map to the missing words.  For this study, the present authors have travelled to Canada and Britain, interviewed Claire Mosley in Matlock about her discovery, and watched as Flora Davidson removed the protective travel packaging from the original gravemarkers currently held outside Ottawa — unstudied since Hansen’s initial effort over half a decade earlier.  Like Hansen, our analysis has been observational only: as practiced whilst searching for Northwest Passage graves in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery, we employed nothing more technical than “a flashlight at a shallow angle.”


{ Markham’s private journal, making several errors }   

At first glance, the Derbyshire photograph is so revealing, one wonders if this exercise might most resemble the correcting of written exams.  The Derbyshire schoolmaster calls each of the early gravemarker transcribers forward, holding their works aloft before the class, every mistake in turn rapped crisply with the pointing rod.

Some of what follows resembles just that.  But the exam results need to be addressed here, before proceeding.  They do not show that sometimes we must listen to Kane, and other times to Osborn; that Markham’s version of Hartnell is best, but that McDougall should be consulted for Torrington, etc.  The results reveal something different: a star pupil.

{ Peter Cormac Sutherland (1822-1900). }   

For each gravemarker, we assembled the best transcriptions we could find.  In each contest, it came down to a single word, a photo finish.  And yet each time, the laurel wreath went to the same person, a name we hadn’t ever seen preferred before: Peter Cormac Sutherland.

Looking at his biographical details, such a conclusion might have been guessed at sooner.  Sutherland wasn’t Royal Navy.  He was a physician, a geologist, a naturalist, a surveyor — in short, someone trained to observe the world just as it is.  His book alone presents his Beechey graves transcriptions in situ: written onto their respective gravemarkers, the graves in the correct left-to-right order, mounds of rock circling their bases.  His “transcript” even records that two posts held up Braine’s gravemarker — a detail missed in the scene sketch by Sutherland’s closest transcriptions rival, the artist McDougall.

{ Sutherland’s gravemarker transcriptions, from his 1852 book. }   

{ ▽ McDougall’s scene sketch, Illustrated London News, 4 Oct 1851. }   
{ Note no posts beneath Braine’s gravemarker. }   

Sutherland was surgeon on the Sophia during the big 1850–51 Franklin search, meaning that he was present on the morning that the Beechey graves were discovered.  He was then 28 years old.  He returned for a second Franklin search immediately the next year, as surgeon on the Isabel.  Though not a familiar name, most eyes reading these words will have seen Sutherland walk across the stage of this story before.  In Beattie & Geiger’s classic Frozen In Time, the authors highlight that one surgeon had wished to conduct an exhumation of the Beechey graves immediately, on the same 1850–51 search that had discovered them.  That surgeon was Peter Cormac Sutherland.

And when Hartnell’s grave was exhumed in the 1980s, Owen Beattie and his team discovered that Hartnell had in fact already been exhumed, by someone in the past.  Their research later revealed that Captain Inglefield of the Isabel had ordered a quiet midnight exhumation of Hartnell in 1852.  The man at Inglefield’s side for that exhumation, his ship’s surgeon, was Peter Cormac Sutherland — fulfilling his wish from his previous search.

Thus we already know Peter Sutherland, as the early advocate of exhuming the graves on Beechey Island, as well as the surgeon at the actual exhumation of Hartnell in 1852.  To this, we can now add that Peter Sutherland was also the most authoritative transcriber of the Beechey gravemarker inscriptions.

But how much authority is he due?  What happens in a situation where Sutherland, the Derbyshire photograph, and the surviving gravemarkers are in disagreement with one another?

Conversely, how much weight can we place on those other two sources?  Despite stretches of legibility, neither presents an unobstructed read through the inscriptions.  Consider also that we do not know if the surviving wooden gravemarkers are showing us the letters as originally carved, or if later visitors found it necessary to re-carve them at some point.  The black-painted letters on them today are certainly later work, commonly attributed to Bernier’s visit in 1906.  Similarly, we do not know precisely when the Derbyshire photograph was taken.  Does it show us the gravemarkers as they were originally found in 1850?  Or does it show them after T.C. Pullen’s repainting of the gravemarkers (SPRI GB15) in 1853?  Or later?  And did any alterations creep in to Pullen’s repainting?  The photograph in Derbyshire was found pasted in amidst newspaper articles from 1851, which is certainly suggestive, though not enough for a conclusive dating.  In the photograph, are we seeing paintwork that looks crisp and fresh?  Or does it look like it just survived half a decade (1846–50) exposed to Arctic weather?  The former seems more plausible, and we do know that photography without snow on the ground was taken during the Belcher search (Wamsley & Barr 1996).

{ Elisha Kent Kane at the graves (Wellcome Collection, 1858). }   

This study cannot conclusively answer these questions.  It will proceed attempting to balance the weight of all three sources:  the surviving gravemarkers currently held outside Ottawa, the photograph in Derbyshire, and the works of the early gravemarker transcribers, led by Peter Sutherland.

As a forecast for the sections that follow: Hartnell will prove complex but manageable, Torrington will be brief to deal with, and then Braine is where significant issues arise.


{ Hartnell’s gravemarker, the Derbyshire photograph. Edited for clarity. }   

The biggest visual shock of the Derbyshire photograph arguably wasn’t the jet-black coats of paint, which in fact had been recorded in multiple early sources.  What was completely unexpected, left unremarked in every known description and illustration of the graves, was sitting atop Hartnell’s inscription.

A decorative element.  A tree.

{ Hartnell’s gravemarker, tree detail. }   

Or is it a tree?  The “trunk” appears split at the base — as if it is in fact two branches, crossed above the letter “R” in “SACRED”.

John Hartnell was not alone on the expedition: his brother Thomas Hartnell was with him on board HMS Erebus, both as Able Seamen.  If this symbol is two branches crossed, they most likely symbolize the two brothers.

It is also notable that the gravemarker’s bright border line seems to widen significantly – on both sides – just above where the branches approach it (see arrows on image below).  This intimation of moving beyond the gravemarker’s edge raises another possibility: that this is a portrayal of the bottom curve of a wreath.  The laurel wreath as a symbol commonly shows two branches crossed at its base.

{ Hartnell’s gravemarker, widened border line marked by arrows. }   

The wreath is classically a symbol of victory.  While we are unaware of any episode in John Hartnell’s life to warrant such a symbol, it is also notable that we know nothing about the final six months of his life as an individual.  Nor would his be the only Franklin Expedition gravemarker with a laurel wreath.  The gravemarker later built for HMS Terror’s John Irving in Edinburgh features a laurel wreath with crossed branches — symbolizing 2nd place in a summer mathematics competition in Greenwich (see Zachary 2020 for photography).  

Of perhaps particular relevance is the gravemarker of HMS Resolute’s George Malcolm on nearby Griffith Island, which features a small crossed-branches wreath near the top.  Malcolm died on the same 1850-51 search that had discovered the graves, and thus the Resolute’s men created this design after having recently seen Hartnell’s gravemarker.

{ ▽ Malcolm’s gravemarker, wreath detail. }   

Malcolm’s gravemarker. 1851. Franklin search expedition, 1850–51. Qikiqtaaluk/ᕿᑭᖅᑖᓗᒃ (Griffith Island). From the Government of Nunavut, Heritage Collections. Accession No: 979.95.1.

{ ▽ Malcolm’s gravemarker, inscription detail. }   

What is most unusual about Hartnell’s branches is that, while the left branch stretches out and upward, part of the right branch seems to slump back down into the word “SACRED”.  Why is it not symmetrical?  Or, are the branches indeed symmetrical, and we are in fact seeing additional figures above the “ED” in “SACRED”?  Could they be letters?  If so, they have escaped every transcription of Hartnell’s gravemarker, and this would seem unlikely.

{ Hartnell’s gravemarker, the Derbyshire photograph. }   

Given these questions, a search for traces of this decorative element was a priority for our inspection of the original gravemarker.  However we found no significant remnants of the “crossed branches” decoration.  There is a faint line that matches well with the position of the upward curve of the right branch; this was the only trace we felt confident in identifying as likely having been a part of the lost decoration.

{ Hartnell’s gravemarker. Photograph by Alison Freebairn. }   

[Note the shallow groove along the edge in these photos, presumably where the bright border line was painted.]

{ GIF of Hartnell’s gravemarker, Derbyshire juxtaposed with today. }   

{ ▽ Hartnell’s gravemarker, tree/branches area. }   

It is possible that the crossed branches decoration was never carved quite as deeply as the lettering, or perhaps never re-carved back into the wood by later visitors to the island.  Or, perhaps it was only painted on, never carved in — however, other lettering on the gravemarker has been equally worn to this degree.  For now, the Derbyshire photograph remains the most effective way of studying this decoration, despite the questions it leaves unanswered.

As a decorative element, the crossed branches are not alone on Hartnell’s gravemarker.  They join an unusual number of decorations that Hartnell alone received, whilst Torrington and Braine did not.

Two survive prominently.  A line (with curves at each end) is still depicted on the gravemarker, the lower remnant of what Derbyshire’s photograph shows us was once a full border line closing in the inscription.  As well, though all three Franklin gravemarkers feature a similar sloped top, Hartnell’s alone has additional pointed peaks near the base of the slope, resembling horns or ears on the gravemarker.  Hansen’s physical descriptions of the gravemarkers (2017) leaves this detail unremarked; nor did we notice them in person, only spotting the unique feature in our photography after having left Canada.  However, Hartnell’s “ears” have not been forgotten.  They were faithfully maintained for the 1993 replacement gravemarkers on Beechey Island.  Despite the almost uniform modern design employed, they make Hartnell’s instantly recognizable: once you see them, you never fail to notice them again.

{ ▽ Hartnell’s gravemarker: “ears” shown by arrows. }   

{ Russell Potter’s photograph of Hartnell’s gravemarker, 2004. }   

{ Russell Potter’s photograph of Hartnell’s gravemarker, 2004. }   

The final decorative element of Hartnell’s gravemarker is only discoverable when one works through the inscription in the Derbyshire photograph.  Four of the lines seem to close with unknown extra characters, unrelated to the wording.  We do not know what they are or what their function is.

One characteristic that some and perhaps all of them have in common: they slant to the right.

{ Hartnell’s gravemarker: four extra characters marked. }   

They may have been intended to balance the centering of the lines.  But if so, then it is unusual that the 6th line of the inscription (“EREBUS”) did not receive one, as it is centered too far to the left.  [Unless, of course, we are seeing later paintwork which missed it. We looked for a trace in the wood, but saw nothing conclusive. Nor would we necessarily, if it had been lost so early on.]

{ ▽ “...C1 V7”; “...Lord of hosts”; “...ways.*” }   
{ One unidentified mark is just after “ways.” }   

{ ▽ Detail of unknown mark, end of line 11. }   

Unfortunately, like the crossed branches, our study of the original gravemarker only found traces of these marks — not enough for us to determine what they are.  The best preserved seemed to be the mark in the final line, closing the inscription (image above).

The most compelling proposal was made later in 2019, when researcher Natalie Martz created a physical mock-up of the gravemarkers.  In this work, Martz was the first to suggest that what looked like a tree may instead be crossed branches — and, that the extra characters in the inscription may be decorative leaves, matching the theme from the branches at the top.  Building off Martz’s thematic idea, a similar possibility is acorns; the plinth of Franklin’s memorial statue in Waterloo Place, London, for example, is ringed by acorns and oak leaves in bronze.

Perhaps their greatest significance today is to suggest that, where they survive, we are seeing original 1846 inscription carving.  For if someone in the past had decided that the inscription was so faint as to need to be re-carved into the wood, there would be a natural tendency to neglect fading figures with no apparent connection to the wording of the inscription.

Whatever these four symbols in the inscription are, they were apparently never remarked upon or recorded in contemporary descriptions.  Their positions will be represented in our transcription by asterisks.

Distinguishing these marks is necessary to working through Hartnell’s inscription.  However, having listed the new decorative elements revealed by the Derbyshire photograph, it is worth a short digression to analyze their significance.

From what we knew before, it was Hartnell and Braine’s graves that received a greater level of attention, whilst Torrington’s was more spartan.  The obvious explanation is that Torrington was from Terror, whilst the other two were from Erebus, and this must simply have been how their respective carpenters and crew went about memorializing a shipmate.  Frozen In Time makes this distinction in regard to the design of the larger rocks placed on the graves (chapter: “The Face of Death”), but it equally applies to the gravemarkers.  Furthermore, Torrington died first, and therefore the novelties we see with Hartnell and Braine – custom Bible verses and three-piece gravemarker constructions – might also be viewed as a natural inflation of design elements.

But now the further decorations we see in the Derbyshire photograph, lavished on Hartnell alone, have muddled these rationales.  Hartnell had died second, not last.  Yet when Braine dies four months after Hartnell, the Erebus carpenters only give him a simplified, reduced version of Hartnell’s gravemarker.  Gone are the crossed branches, the decorative marks inside the inscription, the bright border line around it all, the extra pointed peaks atop the gravemarker.  Though he did receive a Bible verse, Braine’s lone painted decoration is a short line at the bottom of his inscription, resembling a moustache in shape.  This is more reminiscent of Torrington, not Hartnell, with his simple flat diamond shape closing his inscription.

{ ▽ Derbyshire Record Office, D8760/F/LIB/10/1/1. }   

What was the reason for this?  Why was more effort put into Hartnell’s gravemarker, a matter of mere days after Torrington’s?  And why then did these same Erebus ship carpenters put significantly less effort into Braine’s gravemarker?

The obvious reason would be that John Hartnell’s brother Thomas was present.

However, was Thomas Hartnell himself even still alive when John Hartnell died?  A perhaps universal assumption has been that, because only three graves were found on Beechey Island, therefore only three men died in the first year of the Franklin Expedition.  But Beechey Island is hundreds of miles past where whalers last encountered Franklin’s ships.  Someone could have died and been buried anywhere on the shores of Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait, their gravemarker erased by ice or animals long before ever being found (as has presumably happened with the principal Franklin Expedition graveyard on King William Island).  Or perhaps men were lost into the water, as the searcher Bellot would later be in Wellington Channel.  Curiously, John Hartnell was buried wearing a shirt that bore two red embroidered figures resembling his brother’s initials: “TH”.  One possible explanation is that: John had Thomas’ shirt on because Thomas was no longer alive.

But reversing the question here is illustrative:  Would this much extra effort be put into John Hartnell’s gravemarker, if his brother Thomas wasn’t alive and present for the burial?  This would seem to be the significance of what the photograph is showing us.  While it is circumstantial evidence, we suggest that the higher level of decoration revealed by the Derbyshire photograph may be read as an indication that Thomas Hartnell had indeed survived the first year of the Franklin Expedition.

Returning to the gravemarker then, with all decorative elements identified, and the four unknown marks within the text put aside, we can begin to work through the inscription itself.

In Derbyshire’s photograph, the third line from the bottom has a fairly distinct “C1 V7”, after a word starting with “H”.  This would be the citation for Hartnell’s Bible verse: the Book of Haggai, chapter 1 verse 7, written as “Haggai C1. V7.”

{ Hartnell’s gravemarker, last lines of inscription. }   

We can use this line to sort out which transcribers failed to record the Bible citation correctly: Kane and Osborn, who both moved it down to the final line and removed the letters “C” and “V” (see graphic below).

As well, Kane’s attempt at showing the proper line breaks for Hartnell was more misleading than helpful.  Osborn, meanwhile, does not even attempt to record the original line breaks.  But Osborn accurately transcribes Hartnell’s death date, “died January 4th, 1846” — a line which Kane misses entirely.

{ The Hartnell transcriptions compared. }   

McDougall and Markham do not make these mistakes.  They correctly put the Bible citation ahead of the Bible verse, and do a far better job at delineating where the line breaks are.  Still, on this last point, they do make some deviations — and they both write “Jan. 4” for the death date, when it is discernible in the Derbyshire photograph that “January 4th” was written out, unabbreviated and with the two-letter ordinal suffix.

The Illustrated Arctic News’ transcription is more accurate than all of these.  A shipboard newspaper published on board HMS Resolute during the 1850–51 search (with Osborn and McDougall as its editors), its superior gravemarker transcriptions appeared in the first issue, October 31st, 1850.  Every line break is in the correct position, at which point its only competitor is Sutherland.  But it abbreviates “January” to “Jan.y”, its lone deviation — and thus Sutherland’s transcription, by one word, appears as the most accurate for Hartnell’s gravemarker.  He has every word, every letter, and every line break just as we see them in the Derbyshire photograph.

Not that Sutherland doesn’t have deviations.  However he only does so – as we will see repeatedly with him – regarding letter case and punctuation, not wording and spelling.  For the Hartnell inscription, in six of eleven lines Sutherland deviates on letter case.  Admittedly, this still puts him closer to the Derbyshire photograph’s letter case scheme than any other transcriber.  He even does a fairly faithful replication of the changing glyph sizes from one line to the next — something no other transcriber attempted to record.

But which source should we prioritize?  What if the Derbyshire photograph is showing us a later repainted inscription, after alterations had crept in?  If so, then Sutherland should have priority.

And here the argument might have deadlocked.  Yet there is one more source to consult.

{ The Derbyshire photograph vs. today. }   

At just a glance, one can understand why this task was neglected for so long.  The aging wooden gravemarker appears to have reduced John Hartnell’s complex inscription to just eight words: SACRED – MEMORY OF – JOHN HARTNEL – OF HMS – EREBUS.

But when one looks closer, it gets worse.  Initially we can discern a rough similarity of the letter positions.  But in the line “AB OF H.M.S”, the letters “HMS” noticeably occupy different positions today than they did in the Derbyshire photograph (see below).  Where once they covered the space beneath the letters “ARTNE” in “HARTNELL”, they now fit entirely beneath “ART”.

{ “HMS” comparison, Derbyshire vs. today. }   

Thus we have an example of today’s black-painted letters not merely being absent, but marking novel positions.

However, unlike all modern attempts to read these gravemarkers, we now have the Derbyshire photograph to guide us as a map.  In 2017, Hansen had noted that “AB” was missing on the surviving gravemarker.  He speculated that perhaps “OF” had originally been “AB”.  But he also noted that space was available for “AB” to have been located off to the left.  The Derbyshire photograph shows us that the latter was indeed the case — and that now, knowing where to look, the faint impressions of a nearly vanished “AB” can still be discerned.

{ ▽ Remnants of “AB” location. }   

Thus, with the Derbyshire photograph as a guide, the remains of otherwise vanished letters can still be found — whilst the black painted letters are shown, in the “HMS” example, to at times be significantly unfaithful to the past inscription.

Another example is right in the line above: “JOHN HARTNELL”.  In Hansen’s 2016 in-person study of the gravemarkers, he commented that there simply wasn’t space available for a second “L” after HARTNEL-.  In the Derbyshire photograph, we can see that a second “L” was indeed present — but that Hansen’s observation wasn’t inaccurate, as that 2nd “L” was squeezed very tightly against the border line.

Using a light source from the left on the original gravemarker, in March 2023 we were able to make the faint depression of the 2nd “L” reappear, despite some significantly ridged grain lines.

{ The missing 2nd “L” of HARTNELL. }   

This 2nd “L” noticeably lacks any black paint.  And here it is interesting to consider a much later transcription.  In 1904, A. P. Low visited Beechey Island in the Neptune.  In a cairn note he left on the island (Bernier 1909), he included a transcription of impressive accuracy, ignoring line breaks but otherwise matching Sutherland and the Derbyshire photograph word-for-word on Hartnell’s inscription.  With one exception: Bernier records Low spelling Hartnell with only one “L”.

We believe all of these observations fit together.  They demonstrate the possibility that the faint depression of a missing letter on the wooden gravemarker may still be found, even when it was otherwise considered invisible – and apparently ceased to be painted in – more than a century in the past.

And here – after these same letters “LL” which we see pressed tightly against the edge – Sutherland’s transcription would tell us that a comma then closed the line.  Yet we see a carving of the letters that contradicts Sutherland and corroborates the Derbyshire photograph: there is no room left for closing punctuation between “LL” and where the border line would have lain.  Indeed, it is so tight that Low/Bernier and Hansen would drop the 2nd “L”.

In general, Sutherland appears to have been profligate with punctuation, as were the other transcribers.  For example, in the Derbyshire photograph, we see only two periods in “H.M.S”, whilst not a single transcriber resisted adding a third period to properly close the abbreviation.  However, other than this one unusual circumstance after “JOHN HARTNELL”, the deterioration of the wood makes it too subjective to try to identify punctuation – or a lack thereof – on the surviving wooden gravemarker.

If punctuation were the only dispute to be measured, this would leave us with just one instance on which to judge Sutherland vs. the Derbyshire photograph.  But turning to letter case, several more comparisons can be drawn.

{ ▽ Detail showing “SACRED” in uppercase. }   

Two letter case disputes are readily visible.  Sutherland wrote “Sacred” for the inscription’s first line, but the surviving gravemarker confirms the Derbyshire photograph’s rendition as “SACRED”, all uppercase.  Then at the Bible verse, where Sutherland wrote “Hosts”, the surviving letter carving confirms the Derbyshire photograph’s version as “hosts”, all lowercase.

At which point, all remaining letter case disputes are in lines that are missing: that Hansen in 2017 reported as unreadable.

Again the Derbyshire photograph can be followed as a map.  At the otherwise lost Bible citation line, we can identify the edges of the word “Haggai,” followed by a capitalized “C1. V7.” — contradicting Sutherland’s lowercase rendering.  As well, though most of line 8 (“Aged 25 years”) is indeed gone, we can find the distinct remains of the word “years” at its end — and it is lowercase, again contradicting Sutherland.

{ ▽ Hartnell, remnants of lines highlighted. }   

{ The Derbyshire photograph. }   

{ ▽ Hartnell, remnants of lines highlighted. }   

In sum, Sutherland deviates six times from the Derbyshire photograph regarding letter case.  In four of those six, we are still able to read the surviving wooden gravemarker.  Each time, the surviving gravemarker agrees with the Derbyshire photograph, contradicting Sutherland.  Furthermore: on this question of letter case, all surviving letters on the gravemarker are a match for the Derbyshire photograph.  There are no deviations between the two.

With that perfect agreement on letter case, as well as Sutherland appearing to be overruled in the one instance where we can check his punctuation against the wooden gravemarker (line 4: “JOHN HARTNELL,”), we believe that such agreement between the Derbyshire photograph and the surviving gravemarker should have priority over Sutherland.

This suggests a new transcription for John Hartnell’s gravemarker: to follow the perfect agreement of the Derbyshire photograph, the surviving gravemarker, and Peter Sutherland regarding words, spelling, and line breaks, but then to prioritize the first two sources regarding letter case and punctuation.  That formula results in the following deviations from Sutherland’s 1852 transcription.

Letter case changes from Sutherland:
    Line 1, from “Sacred” to “SACRED”.
    Line 2, from “TO THE” to “to the”.
    Line 7, from “Died” to “died”.
    Line 8, from “AGED 25 YEARS” to “Aged 25 years”.
    Line 9, from “c. I. v. 7.” to “C1. V7.”
    Line 10, from “Hosts” to “hosts”.

Sutherland’s punctuation where confirmed by the Derbyshire photograph:
    Line 5, two abbreviation periods in “H.M.S”.
    Line 9, two periods in “C1. V7.”
    Line 11, period following “Consider your ways.”

New Hartnell transcription:

to the   
AB OF H.M.S *   
died January 4th 1846 *   
Aged 25 years *   
Haggai C1. V7.   
Thus saith the Lord of hosts   
Consider your ways. *   

{ New Hartnell transcription, 2024. }   

Without line breaks:   SACRED to the MEMORY OF JOHN HARTNELL AB OF H.M.S. * EREBUS died January 4th 1846 * Aged 25 years * Haggai C1. V7. Thus saith the Lord of hosts Consider your ways. *

End of first installment.
 – L.Z. & A.F.  January 21st, 2024.


Our thanks to Phillip Innes, Joanna McMann, Flora Davidson, and Alexander Stubbing at the Government of Nunavut’s Heritage Collections at Gatineau, QC.  Aside from the authors, no one put as many hours of their time this past year into realizing this project as these individuals, without whom this article could not have been written.

Our thanks to Clare Mosley, Becky Sheldon, and Sarah Chubb at the Derbyshire Record Office for access to study the Derbyshire graves photograph, the importance of which was first recognized by Clare Mosley herself.

Our thanks to Douglas Stenton for early advice and guidance on approaching this project.  Our thanks to Jonathan Moore for his hospitality during our time in Ottawa.

Our thanks to Cormac Seekings and his father John Cormac Seekings for information regarding their ancestor Peter Cormac Sutherland.

Our thanks to Sylvia Wright, great-granddaughter of Sir F. Leopold McClintock, and her husband Malcolm Wright, for the presentation in this article of the gravemarker transcripts from Leopold McClintock’s personal copy of the Illustrated Arctic News.  

Our thanks to Russell Potter for the use of his unique winter photography from 2004 of the graves on Beechey Island, as well as years of writing and teaching on the history of Beechey Island that we have benefited from.

Our thanks to Douglas Wamsley for his excellent suggestions and attention to detail.

Our thanks to Olga Kimmins for research assistance in Derbyshire and in London.

Our thanks to Allegra Rosenberg for research assistance regarding London archives.

Our thanks to Seth Amadio for graciously loaning magnification optics for this project. 

Our thanks to the Mbalenhle Zulu at the Campbell Collections of the University of KwaZulu-Natal for assistance in licensing their photograph of Peter Cormac Sutherland.

Our thanks to Joy Wheeler at the Royal Geographical Society for assistance in licensing imagery of Clements Markham’s gravemarker transcriptions.

Lastly we thank DJ Holzhueter, for years this community’s resource for all questions regarding Beechey.


The following sources are cited by author’s last name, followed by newspapers sorted by publication date, then concluding with miscellaneous and photography sources.

Barr, William.
    2007.  A further note on the Beechey Island memorials.  Polar Record, Volume 43, Issue 2, April 2007, pp. 167 - 168 (link).

Beattie, Owen and Geiger, John.
    1987.  Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition.

Bernier, Joseph-Elzéar.
    1909.  Report on the Dominion Government Expedition to Arctic Islands and the Hudson Strait on board the C.G.S. “Arctic” 1906–1907.

A.P. Low’s Beechey gravemarker transcriptions are recorded by Bernier on page 22.  Bernier mistakenly records one of Low’s dates as “August 5th, 1904.”  Consulting Low’s book (Cruise of the Neptune, 1906) shows that the proper and only date of Low’s visit to Beechey Island was “August 15th, 1904” (recorded correctly by Bernier elsewhere on this same page 22).

Bernier, Joseph-Elzéar.
    1910.  Report on the Dominion of Canada Government Expedition to the Arctic Islands and Hudson Strait on board the D.G.S. ‘Arctic’.

In researching this article, Alison Freebairn noted that this book contains an early photograph of the Beechey graves never previously cited or discussed: “Headstones of four of Sir John Franklin’s men, Erebus Bay.”

Freebairn, Alison.
    2021.  Robert Goodsir and the Franklin Graves on Beechey Island., 4 January 2021 (link). 

The source of the Goodsir quotation that opens this article:  “How well do I remember the pause I made, when the still, quiet desolation of all around me was unbroken, save by the quickly-advancing steps of Petersen crunching over the gravel, the loud beating of my heart and quick-drawn breathing, ere I could gather courage to advance and read the inscriptions that I rightly guessed would appear on the other side of the headboards.”

Hansen, Todd.
    2010.  Additional documents and survey on the Franklin sites of Beechey Island, Nunavut, Canada.  Polar Record, Volume 46, Issue 3, July 2010, pp. 193-199 (link).

Hansen, Todd.
    2012.  Additional documents and survey on the Franklin sites of Beechey Island, Nunavut, Canada: addendum.  Polar Record, Volume 48, Issue 2, April 2012, pp. 195-196 (link).

Hansen, Todd.
    2017.  Physical descriptions of the Beechey Island headboards.  Polar Record, Volume 53, Issue 4, July 2017, pp. 403-412 (link).

“ 2016 Hansen was able to discern enough to correct two words in McDougall’s transcriptions, and to demonstrate a flaw in Kane’s transcriptions.”  Hansen notes that McDougall incorrectly wrote “H.M.S.” rather than “HM SHIP” for Torrington.  Hansen was also able to see the start of the word “Aged” on Braine’s gravemarker, which is missed by McDougall’s transcription.  Regarding Kane, Hansen was able to read “Lord of hosts” on Hartnell’s gravemarker, noting that Kane’s transcription had omitted “of hosts”.  [This last transcription had been incorrectly cited to Miertsching at the time, an issue Todd Hansen flagged for us in a private communication.]

The typography of Bernier’s 1909 book is very poorly laid out, and this led to a handful of errors in Hansen’s paper:  A.P. Low’s ship was the Neptune not the Northern Star, Bernier doesn’t suggest that Low painted the gravemarkers (“the ‘headstone’”), and the gravemarker transcriptions were originally written by Low not by Bernier.

Hobson, George.
    1993.  Letter to the Editor.  Arctic, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Sep., 1993), pp. 291-292 (link).

Inglefield, Edward Augustus.  
    1853.  A Summer Search for Sir John Franklin; with A Peep Into The Polar Basin.

The source for the story of the polar bear sitting on the graves; also, the expedition during which Inglefield and Sutherland exhumed Hartnell, though this is discreetly not mentioned here.

Just before the polar bear anecdote, Inglefield mentions “knee-deep snow” covering Beechey Island.  Given Inglefield’s brief stay, this one detail almost certainly rules out this visit as being the source of the Derbyshire photograph (despite Inglefield’s photography making him otherwise a prime suspect).

Kane, Elisha Kent.
    1854.  The U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin: A Personal Narrative.

In addition to his own Beechey gravemarker transcriptions, Kane publishes an appendix with Edwin J. De Haven’s gravemarker transcriptions (which differ slightly as published in an appendix by Osborn in Stray Leaves, 1852).

Markham, Clements.
    1853.  Franklin’s Footsteps.

This book contains the published version of Markham’s Beechey gravemarker transcriptions.  [They differ from the versions in his private journal held at the RGS (CRM/3).]

McDougall, George Frederick.
    1857.  The Eventful Voyage of H. M. Discovery Ship “Resolute” to the Arctic Regions in Search of Sir John Franklin and the Missing Crews of H. M. Discovery Ships “Erebus” and “Terror,” 1852, 1853, 1854.

The published versions of McDougall’s Beechey gravemarker transcriptions.

Opel, Mechtild.
    2019.  Northumberland House.  Trimaris, 28 July 2019 (link).

A quotation of Miertsching’s original gravemarker transcriptions (4 May 1854), with his original German introduction mentioning black-painted graves, recorded by his biographer Mechtild Opel:  “Auch sind hier drei Gräber, jede mit einer schwarz angestrichenen eichenen Pfoste, auf welchen folgende Schrift ausgeschnitten ist...”

Osborn, Sherard.
    1852.  Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal.

Osborn’s published gravemarker transcriptions in this book exhibit minor differences between the original 1852 edition, the 1865 edition (cited/quoted by Cyriax), and the United States 1852 edition.

Potter, Russell A.
    2019.  Earliest photos of graves at Beechey.  Visions of the North, 24 June 2019 (link).

Derbyshire’s Beechey graves photograph was first published as a reply on Twitter (five days later) to Russell Potter’s tweet promoting this article (see Miscellaneous section of this Bibliography).

Potter, Russell A.
    2019.  Black Graves of Beechey Island.  Visions of the North, 3 July 2019 (link).

Powell, Brian D.
    2006.  The memorials on Beechey Island, Nunavut, Canada: an historical and pictorial survey.  Polar Record, Volume 42, Issue 4, October 2006, pp. 325-333 (link).

Seekings, John Cormac.
    2013.  Natal’s Little Doctor, Colonial Officer par Excellence: PC Sutherland.

Sutherland, Peter Cormac.
    1852.  Journal of a Voyage in Baffin’s Bay and Barrow Straits, in the Years 1850–51, Performed by H.M. Ships “Lady Franklin” and “Sophia,” Under the Command of Mr. William Penny, in Search of the Missing Crews of H.M. Ships Erebus and Terror: with a Narrative of Sledge Excursions on the Ice of Wellington Channel; and Observations on the Natural History and Physical Features of the Countries and Frozen Seas Visited.

Wamsley, Douglas & Barr, William.
    1996.  Early photographers of the Arctic.  Polar Record, Volume 32, Issue 183, October 1996, pp. 295-316 (link).

Young, Allen.
    1876.  Cruise of the ‘Pandora.’

The original publication of the 1875 Beechey graves photograph shown in the Introduction of this article.  The particular print (with caption incorrectly identifying the anvil amongst the graves, an error going back to Kane) that we have used comes from our copy of The Toll of the Arctic Seas (1910) by Deltus Malin Edwards, a much easier book to come by.  For the photographer De Wilde, see Arthur G. Credland’s 2015 article in Polar Record, “George Rexworthy De Wilde (1832/3–1906): a forgotten pioneer of Arctic photography.”

Zachary, Logan.
    2020.  The Medallion on Irving’s Tombstone., 9 May 2020 (link).

Cited for photography of the unusual wreath decoration on Irving’s gravestone.

Newspaper articles, by publication date:

31 October 1850.  
    The Illustrated Arctic News.  Page 3, column 2.  [The source of this shipboard newspaper’s excellent Beechey gravemarker transcriptions. Our thanks to Sylvia and Malcolm Wright for the opportunity to study the copy once owned by Sylvia’s great-grandfather, Sir Leopold McClintock.]

4 October 1851.  
    The Illustrated London News.  Page 410, column 1.  [The published versions of Austin’s Beechey gravemarker transcriptions.  Page 409 reprints McDougall’s graves scene sketch.]

Miscellaneous and photography sources:

The Inuit place names for Iluvilik/ᐃᓗᕕᓕᒃ (Beechey Island) and Qikiqtaaluk/ᕿᑭᖅᑖᓗᒃ (Griffith Island) used in this article are sourced from the Inuit Heritage Trust Place Names Program, referenced 9 January 2024 (link).

The photograph of Peter Cormac Sutherland (link) was licensed from the Campbell Collections of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (ID: d43-045. Album D43/001-080 Eminent People. Album 1.BRN 350576).

The photograph of Elisha Kent Kane (link) comes from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (NPG.2005.38) listed as Public Domain (CC0).

The Elisha Kent Kane (with gravemarkers) engraving comes from the Wellcome Collection (link) listed on their website as Public Domain.  [Elisha Kent Kane. Engraving by D. G. Thompson, 1858, after J. B. Wandesforde. Wandesforde, Juan Buckingham, 1817-1902. Date: 1858 Reference: 9934i.]

Clements Markham’s Private Journal from HMS Assistance: CRM/3 at the Royal Geographical Society in London.  Our thanks to Joy Wheeler for assistance in purchasing a licence to display Markham’s gravemarker transcriptions.  Our thanks to Allegra Rosenberg for assistance and expertise regarding Clements Markham.  Markham’s Beechey gravemarker transcriptions are located in the journal at page 19.

The journal of Thomas C. Pullen (Master of HMS North Star) is in typed transcript form at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI GB15 MS 274;BJ).  On 4 August 1853, Pullen mentions the painting of the Head Boards.

Natalie Martz’s Beechey gravemarkers mock-up was posted to the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group on 31 October 2019 (link).

The Derbyshire Record Office first published their Beechey Island graves photograph on 29 June 2019 to their Twitter account (link), as a reply to Russell Potter’s tweet promoting his 24 June 2019 Visions of the North article “Earliest photos of graves at Beechey.”  Public discussion of the photograph took place the same day at the Remembering the Franklin Expedition group on Facebook (link).

 – L.Z. & A.F.  January 21st, 2024.