This week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that a team of underwater archeologists working near King William Island, Nunavut have located the wreck of one of the two ships from British Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The vessels have long been some of the world’s most sought after shipwrecks, and the recent discovery may finally reveal the story behind one of the 19th century’s most chilling disappearances.

It’s one of the most puzzling mysteries in maritime history. In 1845, famed Arctic explorer and British hero Sir John Franklin left England on a mission to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. After last being spotted by British whalers near Baffin Island in July 1845, Franklin’s 129-man crew and two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, vanished without a trace. The disappearance captured the imagination of Victorian England, and between 1848 and 1859, more than 30 would-be rescue missions scoured the Canadian Arctic in pursuit of the lost explorers. What few details the searchers gleaned from local Inuits, skeletal remains and a message left behind by the crew told a grisly tale. HMS Erebus and Terror had become trapped in ice floes from 1846 to 1847, and Franklin and two dozen others had died. In early 1848, the remaining crewmen abandoned their ice-bound ships and tried to make a grueling overland trek to civilization. All are believed to have perished along the way, but their true fate has never been revealed.

Now, a research team from the Canadian government has uncovered the most significant clue in the history of the more than 150-year-old cold case: the underwater resting place of one of the doomed expedition’s vessels. “I am delighted to announce that this year’s Victoria Strait Expedition has solved one of Canada’s greatest mysteries, with the discovery of one of the two ships belonging to the Franklin Expedition,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement on September 9. “For more than a century, this has been a great Canadian story…It’s been the subject of scientists and historians and writers and singers. So I think we have a really important day in mapping together the history of our country.”

Sonar image of shipwreck of one of the two vessels lost in the Franklin Expedition.
Parks Canada

Led by Parks Canada, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and others, the team of underwater archeologists used sophisticated side scan sonar and an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, or AUV, to trawl the waters near King William Island in the Northern Canadian territory of Nunavut. On September 7, the team hit pay dirt. Sonar images revealed the outline of a well-preserved ship resting upright only some 35 feet below the surface. Using the AUV’s onboard high definition video camera, the team was even able to get a close up look at the ship as it sat on the sea floor. The researchers are still unsure if the wreck belongs to the HMS Erebus or Terror, but according to Harper, “we do have enough information to confirm its authenticity.”

The discovery comes on the heels of another breakthrough from earlier this month, when a team of archeologists found an iron boat-launching davit and a wooden plug from the Franklin Expedition near King William Island. The wreck’s location near King William’s Adelaide Peninsula also vindicates 19th century Inuit testimonies, which claimed that a European ship sank in the area. “The beauty of where they found it is it’s proof positive of Inuit oral history,” journalist Peter Mansbridge told the CBC. “The Inuit have said for generations that one of their hunters saw a ship in that part of the passage, abandoned and ended up wrecking…It’s exactly where this guy said it was.”

While the research team has yet to recover any artifacts from the wreck, many have already have already hailed the find as a major breakthrough. British archeologist William Battersby lauded it as “the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb almost 100 years ago,” and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration historian James Delgado told National Geographic that it was “one of the great maritime archaeological discoveries of our time.” Harper, meanwhile, called the wreck Canada’s “only undiscovered national historical site.”

Just what happened to Franklin and his crew is a question that has vexed historians for nearly 170 years. When the Franklin Expedition launched in 1845, it was the most well equipped and technically advanced operation in the history of polar exploration. HMS Erebus and Terror were two of the crown jewels of the Royal Navy. Both boasted state-of-the art water distillation systems, auxiliary steam engines and even onboard heating. The mission was also bolstered by the leadership of Sir John Franklin and his second-in-command, Francis Crozier, both of whom were hardened explorers with significant experience combing the Arctic.

Franklin seemed destined to become the first man to force the icy Northwest Passage and unlock a new route trade route to Asia, but by 1848, three years had passed with no word from him or his crew. The Crown launched a series of three search operations that year, all of which initially failed to turn up any trace of the missing explorers. Dozens died in subsequent rescue missions, and in 1854, the chances of the crew’s survival began to look increasingly grim after searcher John Rae recovered artifacts and collected Inuit testimony that a group of white men had starved to death in the region.

The British government effectively abandoned the search after Rae’s report, but Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, clung to the belief that her husband was still alive. She personally financed additional rescue operations in the mid-1850s and even had supplies left behind on the tundra in the hope that Franklin might find them. In 1859, one of Lady Jane’s explorers found the only surviving account of the Franklin Expedition sealed in a tin can under a stone cairn on King William Island. Scribbled on a sheet of official paper were two updates on the status of the expedition. The first, from May 1847, noted that the ships had become ice-bound, but that all was well. A second update from April 1848, however, claimed that the Erebus and Terror had been stuck in ice for more than a year. 24 crewmen had already died, the message said, including Franklin on June 11, 1847. Crozier, now acting commander, planned to set off on foot with 105 survivors in search of help. Neither he nor any of his men would survive the journey. According to Inuit accounts and cut marks on the bones of some of the recovered corpses, the stranded sailors most likely resorted to cannibalism before succumbing to starvation and cold. At the time, the explorers were only miles away from the Northwest Passage that had originally inspired their journey.

Since the 19th century, dozens of other research missions have searched in and around King William Island in the hope of recovering bodies or written testimony from the lost Franklin Expedition. One of the most significant discoveries came in 1984, when a team from the University of Alberta exhumed the bodies of three crewmen buried on Beechey Island. Analysis of the corpses found evidence of starvation, hypothermia, pneumonia, scurvy and—most intriguingly—lead poisoning. Many have since theorized that the explorers may have died from exposure to dangerously high levels of lead from the pipes in their water system or from their lead-sealed food tins. Others, however, contend that the lead content would not have been significant enough to be fatal.

The current Victoria Strait Expedition is the culmination of a six year effort by the Canadian government, which has renewed interest in finding the Franklin ships as Arctic ice floes have melted and made the region more navigable. The mission employed a small fleet of boats as launching platforms and made use of several survey vessels and remotely operated vehicles, including the AUV that made the discovery. Prime Minister Harper said the long sought after wreck appears to be “perfectly preserved” by the icy waters, fueling speculation that it may hold ship’s logs or photos that could help fill in the gaps in the famous story. “Finding the first vessel will no doubt provide the momentum – or wind in our sails – necessary to locate its sister ship and find out even more about what happened to the Franklin Expedition’s crew,” he said in his statement.