Hunt for answers to Franklin Expedition is newest “old cold case” for award-winning project

How could one of the most advanced scientific missions of the 19th century fail so badly? The doomed 1845 Franklin expedition was the equivalent in its time of sending humans to the moon. What happened to the expedition has puzzled historians and the public ever since and last September’s discovery of the nearly intact hull of one of Franklin’s two ships adds new questions to the mystery. Now schoolchildren and sleuths of every age are invited to help crack this case—one of the coldest cases of all.

On June 4 in Ottawa, on the 170th anniversary of the first full day at sea of the British mission to find the Northwest Passage, the University of Victoria will officially launch “The Franklin Mystery: Life and Death in the Arctic,” the 13th website in the award-winning Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, a national teaching project used in over 50 countries and by nearly 2,500 students every day.

UVic history professor and project co-director Dr. John Lutz says last fall’s discovery of HMS Erebus “solves one mystery but opens up many more. Why did the crew abandon the ship, or did they? What happened to the other ship, HMS Terror, and its crew? How could both crews with three year’s provisions not survive when the local Inuit could live off the land? Was cannibalism, a part of the Inuit oral testimony, really the unfortunate finale for these men? This is an ongoing detective story, which is what the Great Unsolved Mysteries is all about.”

A project based in the Department of History at UVic and involving a team of historians, archaeologists, educators and other specialists across the country, the ‘whodunit’ approach of Great Unsolved Mysteries breathes new life into old stories of intrigue. History sleuths work with primary historical documents and high-quality interactive teaching materials of, on average, 100,000 words per mystery; crime scene reconstructions, as well as activities and historical interpretations by experts; and a webquest-style portal which offers short but powerful lessons for middle and high school students to encourage critical thinking about history. The national bilingual project is designed for students from junior high to university but is also used by younger students, history buffs and mystery lovers alike. The Franklin Mystery will be available in English and French, with an additional instructional package available in Inuktitut.

“This project is experiential learning at its best,” adds Lutz. “We literally put the magnifying glass into the hands of students, using these 13 websites to help make Canadian history exciting, real and totally engaging. History is too important to be boring, and these mysteries are too intriguing to be left to historians alone.”

The Great Unsolved Mysteries is guided by three co-directors: Dr. Ruth Sandwell at the University of Toronto, who helped establish the project; Dr. Peter Gossage of Concordia University; and Lutz, also a co-originator. Research director for the new mystery site is historian Lyle Dick, a former president of the Canadian Historical Association. (See backgrounder for further details on the project, participants and funding.)

The primary partners with UVic in the Franklin Mystery are the Government of Nunavut Department of Education, Parks Canada, the Library and Archives of Canada and Concordia University. The 13th mystery project was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council through the Partnership Development Grants as part of the series of 13 mysteries, which in total has received over $4 million in financial support from various funding partners including the Department of Canadian Heritage.

For more info, visit or email

Follow on Twitter @FranklinMystery and @MysteriesCanada.

High rez images available for download on Dropbox (UVic News).

Visit Parks’ Canadas website to view new artefacts recovered from HMS Erebus.

Media contacts:

John Lutz (UVic Dept. of History, GUMICH Co-Director) on cell at 250-217-4207 or
Lyle Dick (Research Director, The Franklin Mystery) on cell at 204-290-4844 or
Tara Sharpe (University Communications + Marketing) at 250-721-6248 or
Suzanne Ahearne (University Communications + Marketing) at 250-721-6139 or

Follow us on Twitter: @uvicnews

UVic media relations & services:

Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History