David B. Williams explores the history and use of cairns—the intentional stacking of rocks as messages—in his new book, Cairns Messengers in Stone. The book covers the many different ways cairns have been used around the world, and each cairn tells its own story, including the mysterious tale of Sir John Franklin and his Arctic expedition to the Northwest Passage.

On May 10th, 1845, Sir John Franklin and his company of one hundred men set sail from England in search of a fabled waterway through the Arctic called the Northwest Passage. His two vessels, the Erebus and the Terror, were last seen moored to an iceberg in Baffin Bay preparing to voyage east into Lancaster Sound before the winter of 1845. Sir John Franklin and his men were never heard from again with the exception of a single note found inside a cairn on King William Island.

Around the time of Franklin’s expedition it was common for explorers to build cairns at each stop along their voyage as a form of communication with other travelers. Cairns were used not only to mark and claim newly discovered lands but also to leave behind messages for those who came after them. All of the information we have today on Sir John Franklin and his men comes from the cairns that were left behind during their voyage to the Northwest Passage. Even today people continue to search for cairns left by Franklin's team to help tell the story of the mysterious fate of Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition.

The search for Franklin and his men didn’t start until the year 1850 when the British Admiralty, US Government and Hudson’s Bay Company decided to send rescue fleets out into the Arctic. The rescue boats scoured island after island looking for cairns or any other indication of Sir John Franklin's Arctic expedition. The cairns that were found by the search crews were dismantled in the hopes of finding messages left behind by Franklin. The search crews would then rebuild the cairns, depositing their own messages, informing any future explorers of what they had found.

Other than a few skeletons and some assorted artifacts, no new information on Sir John Franklin came until 1854 when an Inuit man reported remembering having seen a party of white men pulling boats ashore in the spring of 1850, but he said that by the end of the winter they had all died from starvation. The news that most of Franklin’s men were dead brought an end to the search for most, yet Franklin’s wife had not given up hope, and in 1859 she paid explorer Francis Leopold McClintock to search the area where the Inuit man had seen the survivors.

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Sir John Franklin Cairn

McClintock discovered a cairn on King William Island that contained a message from an earlier search party which reported finding three cairns on the northwest edge of the island at Victory Point. The cairns at victory point had been built by a much earlier Arctic expedition during the 1830’s that was also in search of the Northwest Passage. One of the cairns contained a sealed canister with a faded note from the 1830’s Arctic expedition, but written over top the 1830's note was a newer message from James Fitzjames, Sir John Franklin's second in command and captain of the Erebus. Fitzjames wrote that the crew and ships were fine and listed the date and coordinates of the fleet. Tucked under the message Fitzjames had left was a second note, dated nine months after the first. This second note was from one of Franklin’s men, reporting that since the time since the message from Fitzjames the ships had been trapped in ice and that a majority of the crew was still alive yet Sir John Franklin had perished. With high hopes McClintock continued his search for signs of the men but nothing new since that day has been found.

An entire chapter in Williams book is dedicated to expedition cairns like the ones from the Northwest Passage explorations, and even more information is shared about the tale of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to the Northwest Passage. If you enjoy reading about cairns and their history, there are many more fascinating stories about trailside shrines, burial cairns and much more in Williams new book, Cairns Messengers in Stone.


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