On July 9, 1845, two months after departing from Greenhithe, England, Warrant Officer John Gregory wrote a letter to his wife from Greenland in which he described seeing whales and icebergs for the first time.
Gregory, who had never been to sea before, was aboard the HMS Erebus, one of two ships to sail in Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea route through the Canadian Arctic that would serve as a trade route to Asia.
Disaster struck. The Erebus and the HMS Terror became stuck in ice in Victoria Strait, off King William Island in what is now the Canadian territory of Nunavut. In April 1848, the survivors — Franklin and nearly two dozen others had already died — set out on foot for a trading post on the Canadian mainland.
All 129 explorers ultimately perished, succumbing to brutal blizzard conditions and subzero temperatures. The doomed expedition endured in the public imagination — inspiring fiction by Mark Twain and Jules Verne, and, more recently, the 2018 AMC series “The Terror” — driven in part by rumours that the crew resorted to cannibalism. The wreckage lay quiet until 2014, when a remotely controlled underwater vehicle picked up the silhouette of the Erebus near King William Island. Two years later, a tip from a local Inuit hunter led to the discovery of the Terror in the ice-cold water of Terror Bay.
John Gregory’s descendants would not learn about his fate until more than 175 years after he sent the letter home from Greenland. Some sailors had been identified after being found in marked graves. But recently, Gregory’s DNA and a sample from a descendant born in 1982 were matched, making him the first explorer from the trip whose remains have been positively identified through DNA and genealogical analyses — a process similar to that used in recent years to identify murder suspects and victims in cold cases.
Jonathan Gregory, 38, who lives in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, got an email from researchers in Canada confirming that the cheek swab he had sent to them confirmed that he was a direct descendant of John Gregory.
He had heard about his family’s connection to the expedition, but until the DNA match, “it was really theory.” (Although he goes by Joe, the similarity between their names “all makes sense,” Gregory said.)
A relative living in British Columbia, whom Gregory had never met, sent him a Facebook message in 2019 after she had seen a request from researchers asking descendants of sailors from the expedition to send in DNA samples.
“I took the plunge,” Gregory said in a phone interview. “For us, this is history.”
Douglas Stenton, a professor at the University of Waterloo and a researcher on the project, said the team, which included researchers from Lakehead University and Trent University, started in 2008, focusing on documenting sites and recovering new information about the expedition. But in 2013, they became interested in the human remains, seeking to “identify some of these men who had effectively become anonymous in death.”
“It’s really a story of human endeavour in one of the world’s most challenging environments,” Stenton said, “resulting in a catastrophic loss of life, for reasons that we still don’t understand.”
The circumstances that led to the demise of the crews are still unclear. Researchers have continued to piece together clues about the expedition’s failure as artefacts have been found throughout the years.
Gregory’s remains were excavated in 2013 on King William Island, about 50 miles south of the site where the ships had been deserted. He most likely died within a month after leaving the ships, Stenton said — a journey that “wasn’t necessarily an enjoyable trip in any sense of the word.” Gregory was between 43 and 47 years old when he died.
Stenton said it was a relief to finally put a name to one of the sailors — and a face, as researchers were able to create a facial reconstruction of what Gregory may have looked like — because details about the expedition have “remained elusive for, you know, 175 years.”
For the past eight years, Stenton said, researchers on the team were “very hopeful” that they would be able to match a sample from a living descendant to a sailor from the pool of DNA they had collected from remains. The first 16 samples they received failed to produce a match, making the Gregory pairing “very gratifying,” he said.
Although the identification has not changed the narrative of the expedition, Stenton said that “the more individuals we can identify, there might be some useful information that could come up that might help us better understand” what happened to the explorers.
He said he was grateful for the families who had sent in DNA, whether they were matched or not, adding that he was pleased to be able to provide Gregory’s family with details about the sailor’s final years. He informed them that Gregory was not alone when he died, as the remains of two other sailors were found at the same site.
“There’s an eerie feeling about it all,” Gregory said, “but at the end of the day, I suppose it’s closure.”