Arctic Ordeal: The Journal of John Richardson, Surgeon-Naturalist with Franklin, 1820-1822


349 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0418-4




Edited by C. Stuart Houston
Reviewed by David T. McNab

David T. McNab was Senior Indian Land Claims Researcher, Toronto.


One of the major events in Canadian and British Imperial history was the disappearance of Sir John Franklin while on his third expedition to find a Northwest Passage in 1845. More significant, in the context of British Arctic exploration, was the first overland expedition by Franklin from Fort Enterprise down the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean, and the tragic, near disastrous, results of the return journey, on which nine of the twenty members in the expedition died. The expedition also included “probable” cannibalism, and “murder.” Arctic Ordeal: The Journal of John Richardson, Surgeon-Naturalist with Franklin, 1820-1822 provides, along with other previously published documents, a complete picture of the first Franklin Expedition. It complements the daily journals of this expedition by Franklin, George Back, and Robert Hood. This book is an important contribution to the history of Canadian Arctic exploration. The editor, Professor C. Stuart Houston, deserves most of the credit. In his words, this expedition was the “first to travel and chart that section of the northern coast of mainland Canada, which until then was known to Europeans only at the two widely separated parts reached by Hearne (1771) and Mackenzie (1789). The expedition established fundamental geographical relationships which strongly influenced the remainder of the search for the Northwest Passage.” Handed down through the Richardson family in England for many years, this journal is now in the Rare Book Room of the University of Illinois, which acquired it by the encouragement of John Richardson’s biographer, Dr. Robert E. Johnson.

Richardson’s journal begins on August 21, 1820. It includes, since Richardson was a naturalist as well as a surgeon, much about the flora and fauna of what is now northern Canada. The journal ends on December 20, 1821. Thus, Richardson’s journal covers the most important part of the expedition that began in England on May 23, 1819, and ended in London, England, on October 21, 1822.

A contemporary of the legendary Franklin, Sir John Richardson was born November 5, 1787, at Dumfries, Scotland, and died in 1865. After studying at the University of Edinburgh, and receiving his M.D. for a thesis on Yellow Fever in 1816, he had a career in the Royal Navy, of which this first Franklin expedition was a part. Later, on the strength of his work on this expedition, he became a prominent British naturalist.

On June 4, 1821, after building their base camp at Fort Enterprise on Great Slave Lake, the party proceeded north on the Coppermine River and reached the shores of the Arctic Ocean on July 19, 1821. From there the expedition, which was accompanied by French Canadian voyageurs, travelled by canoe along the Coronation Gulf to Bathurst Inlet. At that place, although it was by then too late in the season to proceed any further, the imprudent and ambitious Sir John Franklin, in spite of a near mutiny by the French Canadian voyageurs, continued the journey to Cape Flinders and Point Turnagain. From there, unable to return by the Coppermine River, they went overland to Fort Enterprise. This “Arctic Ordeal,” which entailed gradual starvation along the route, strained the courage and the health of the expedition’s members and resulted in “probable” cannibalism by Michel Dumas and his “murder,” in self defence, by John Richardson. With the calmness of a surgeon, Richardson described that event in his journal entry of October 23, 1821: “I determined, however, as I was thoroughly convinced of the necessity of the dreadful act, to take the whole responsibility upon myself, and immediately upon Michel’s coming up. I put an end to his life by shooting him through the head with a pistol.” If it had not been for the Indian people, Franklin, Richardson, and the entire exploration party would have perished by starvation during the fall of 1821 There is also a great deal of interest here for the specialist in Canadian native history about native individuals and communities.

Arctic Ordeal is a careful, comprehensive work of scholarship. In addition to Richardson’s journal, there are a number of important appendices to it that shed much light on Franklin’s character. Equally informative are Richardson’s observations about birds, mammals, fish, plants, and lichenology, as well as his neglected geological field work. The book includes clear, helpful maps, exquisite illustrations by H. Albert Hochbaum, well-researched notes, a useful bibliography, and an index.

At $29.95 (and only in hardcover) it will be out of reach, overlooked, and largely unavailable to the Canadian reading public. Nevertheless, Arctic Ordeal is a magnificent scholarly account of the first Franklin overland expedition to the Arctic Ocean.


Richardson, John, Sir, “Arctic Ordeal: The Journal of John Richardson, Surgeon-Naturalist with Franklin, 1820-1822,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 26, 2024,