1821 Akaitcho Rescues Sir John Franklin

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe (1815), the British Admiralty began to reassign some young officers left idle by the ending of hostilities, to Arctic exploration. Royal Navy Lieutenant John Franklin (later Sir John Franklin), after a brief but futile search for a ‘northeast’ passage off the north coast of Europe and Asia, was chosen to lead an overland expedition from Hudson Bay to the Arctic coast. His task was to explore and map the coast eastward from the mouth of the Coppermine River.

Franklin had been assured that fur-trading companies operating in the north would be able to provide ample supplies for the expedition. By mid-June of 1820, when Franklin had reached Great Slave Lake (map), it became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen. The intense and often violent competition between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company resulted in tenuous supply lines from the south and most northern trading posts were short of provisions.

At Fort Providence (now known as Old Fort Providence), on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, Franklin was introduced to the Yellowknife Dene Chief Akaitcho who, along with several of his best hunters and their families, were to guide the expedition north to a suitable location where wintering quarters could be built and from where a dash to the Arctic coast could be made the following summer.

In the fall of 1820, Franklin and his men built Fort Enterprise on Winter Lake (250 kilometres north of Great Slave Lake) and spent an uncomfortable winter on short rations.

By July of 1821 they were on their way down the Coppermine River and even though they were still very short of provisions were able to explore the Arctic coast east from the mouth of the Coppermine as far as Turnagain Point on Kent Peninsula.

With their birchbark canoes badly damaged by the trip along the seacoast, Franklin and his men returned overland to Fort Enterprise following the Hood River. Exhausted and low on provisions, nine men starved to death, one was shot and one was executed!

When the survivors reached Fort Enterprise they found it hadn’t been restocked with food as expected. Franklin and his men were forced to survive for more than three weeks on discarded skins, bones and lichen.

Rescue came just in time. Midshipman George Back was sent to find help and on November 7th, 1821 arrived back at Fort Enterprise with Akaitcho. With food provided by Akaitcho and his hunters Franklin and his men were soon strong enough to travel and Akaitcho guided them back to Fort Providence.

While the Franklin Expedition failed to reach its geographical goals, and members of the expedition suffered and died, John Franklin was received as a hero when he returned to England.

Akaitcho, the Yellowknife Dene who saved the lives of Franklin and his men, is largely ignored in the written history of the north but remains an important part of the oral history of the Dene.