Akaitcho Rescues Franklin

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe (1815), the British Admiralty reassigned idle officers to explore the Arctic. Lieutenant John Franklin 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.

The British Admiralty assured Franklin that local fur-trading companies would be able to provide supplies for the expedition. By mid-June of 1820, when Franklin had reached Great Slave Lake, these supplies were not available. The competition between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company resulted in most northern trading posts being short of provisions.

At Mǫlàkǫ̀k’e or Old Fort Providence, on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, Franklin met Yellowknives Dene Chief Akaitcho, who agreed to guide the expedition north to a suitable location where they could overwinter and travel to the Arctic coast the following summer. Akaitcho was concerned the journey was starting too late to make a safe passage.

In the fall of 1820, Franklin and his men built Fort Enterprise on Winter Lake (250 km 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 explored the Arctic coast east from the mouth of the Coppermine as far as Turnagain Point on Kent Peninsula.

With their birchbark canoes badly damaged, Franklin and his men returned overland to Fort Enterprise following the Hood River. Nine men starved to death on the return trip; one was shot, and another was executed.

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

Midshipman George Back left to find help, and on November 7, 1821, he arrived back at Fort Enterprise with Chief Akaitcho. Akaitcho and his hunters provided Franklin and his men with food; soon, they were strong enough to travel, and Akaitcho guided them back to Fort Providence.

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

Akaitcho and the Yellowknives Dene, who saved the lives of Franklin and his men, remain an essential part of the oral history of the Dene.