A Skull From the 1845 Franklin Expedition Was Just Identified Using a Descendant’s DNA

John Gregory's actual skull alongside a 3D rendering of his head.
John Gregory's actual skull alongside a 3D rendering of his head. / Diana Trepkov/ University of Waterloo

By April 1848, the members of the 1845 Franklin expedition had given up hope of discovering the Northwest Passage. Their ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, had been frozen in the icy Canadian Arctic for more than a year and a half, during which time nearly two dozen men—including the expedition’s commander, Sir John Franklin—had already perished. Realizing their only chance of survival was to seek out rescue themselves, the 105 remaining men amassed their dwindling foodstuffs and abandoned the ships.

It was a disaster. Every last one of them died, and they likely resorted to cannibalism during the trek. Without any survivors (and so few known written records), the fate of the Franklin expedition became one of the most overwhelming mysteries in the history of Arctic exploration. Over the past 160 years or so, new evidence has slowly emerged. Bones and artifacts have been found on King William Island in Nunavut; and researchers finally located the HMS Erebus and Terror shipwrecks off the island in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

Since excavating a collection of bones in 2013, Canadian researchers from the University of Waterloo, Lakehead University, and Trent University have been extracting DNA and encouraging the sailors’ descendants to submit their own DNA samples in order to identify the remains. They recently got their first match: One skull is now known to have belonged to John Gregory, an engineer on the Erebus who was in his mid-forties. The Franklin expedition was his first—and last—voyage.

Douglas Stenton excavating the skull of a still-unknown sailor discovered near John Gregory's remains.
Douglas Stenton excavating the skull of a still-unknown sailor discovered near John Gregory's remains. / Robert W. Park/University of Waterloo

His direct paternal descendant, Jonathan Gregory, who lives in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, had sent in a DNA sample after hearing about the endeavor from a relative in British Columbia. As The New York Times reports, Jonathan Gregory hadn’t actually been sure he was related to John Gregory until now.

“Having John Gregory's remains being the first to be identified via genetic analysis is an incredible day for our family, as well as all those interested in the ill-fated Franklin expedition,” he said in a press release. “The whole Gregory family is extremely grateful to the entire research team for their dedication and hard work, which is so critical in unlocking pieces of history that have been frozen in time for so long.”

Not only do we now know that Gregory was among the 105 men who set off in search of rescue, but we also know roughly where he died: on the shore of Erebus Bay, along the southwest coast of King William Island, nearly 50 miles south of where the ships were abandoned. The full details of the study were published in the journal Polar Record, but the researchers’ work is far from over—they’re still hoping to find matches for DNA samples taken from 26 other victims’ remains.

“The more individuals we can identify, there might be some useful information that could come up that might help us better understand [what happened to them],” Douglas Stenton, a University of Waterloo adjunct assistant professor of anthropology and lead author of the study, told The New York Times.