The Story of a Ship

birchbark canoe

Image of a birchbark canoe on a Canadian River, from Glenbow Archive, image na-843-14, used with their permission

As you already know from the hints I have dropped, something DID happen in the frozen wastes of Adelaide Peninsula when James Anderson and his crew of men were there. As I have probably told you already, Anderson’s men kept a secret from him, and this is the story of that secret.

But it didn’t happen the way the second part of this story goes. Still, and exactly because it didn’t happen this way, it makes the story even better, I think. So, let’s begin, in the words of one of the men who was with James Anderson on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in summer, 1855. Many years after his visit to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, this Canadien man, named Joseph Boucher, who was the cook for Anderson’s expedition down the Great Fish River, came to historian Joseph Burr Tyrell’s camp and told his version of the story of what had happened on Maconochie’s Island, as told to him by the men that Anderson had sent to explore the string of Islands off the west coast of Adelaide Peninsula. Joseph Tyrell says that:

He told of hardships and dangers that he and the other men encountered, or thought they did, but chiefly of the agony they suffered through fear that they would never again be brought back to their homes. However, the most interesting part of his story was the statement that three men who were sent northward beyond Montreal Island (or Maconochie Island) to look for any signs of Sir John Franklin or his party saw one of the ships far out in the ice, but returned and reported that they had seen nothing; fearing that if they reported a ship in sight, their masters would take them to it, and they would not be able to get back to Fort Resolution that fall, and would all perish of starvation and exposure…

From the Canadien who came to see him, Tyrell obtained the names of the other three men that were involved in the story of the ship, and he discovered that he already knew one of them — “Thomas Mustagan was well known to me. He was the chief of the band of Ojibway Indians which had its headquarters at Norway House, near the north end of Lake Winnipeg, and though rather old at the time was a splendid type of physical manhood, besides having a good reputation as an honest, industrious man.” The other men were located elsewhere, all still alive and in good physical shape, with their memories as sharp as they had been in their youth. They all told their stories when asked, and while the stories did not absolutely agree with the stories told by the other men, they were close enough to be believed. Edward Kipling’s story of a ship is next:

In the morning we divided at an unknown island, Henry Fidler and I went to the west, and the other two to the east. We returned to the starting point and thence to the camp, where Paulet Papanakies told of having seen the ship far out in the sea. This information was not communicated to Messrs. Anderson and [James Green] Stewart for the men were all tired of the expedition and were anxious to get home.

Nor did Henry Fidler and Edward Kipling report the broken boat they had seen on the west side of Montreal Island. Instead, “we returned to the camp that evening and next morning began the homeward journey…” And Mr. J. A. Campbell, who Tyrell sent to interview Thomas Mustagan at Norway House, wrote that Mustagan’s companion, Paulet Papanakies, had “repeatedly stated that he saw a ship far out in the ice at the mouth of the Great Fish River. Those whom I have spoken to say they have no reason to doubt the man’s veracity. On some one suggesting that he might have been mistaken, Paulet replied, “Oh, it was a very clear day, and I have seen the ship at York [Factory] too often to be deceived.”

And Paulet Papanakies also told another story of a ship: that an Inuit man, “who was fishing at the mouth of a river… told him (Paulet) and Thomas Mustagan that a ship had been “ruined” and plenty people dead. They did not understand his language, but he made signs which they could readily follow, and pointed to the place where the ship was all “broken.” Paulet and Mustagan then proceeded to see if they could find anything, one going one way and one another, and it was Paulet only who from the summit of a rocky island saw quite distinctly what he still believes to be two masts of a ship… Upon my enquiring why he did not tell the chief of the expedition what he had seen, he replied in the most simple manner possible.

Well, I was tired of the whole thing, and was thinking long to be home, and was afraid if I said anything about it we should have to go back and see what it was, so I thought I would keep it to myself yet awhile anyhow.

These statements were made and collected by Tyrell in 1893, thirty-eight years after the events to which they referred occurred. Joseph Tyrell published the stories some time after they were collected, it seems: perhaps it took him that long to find these men and to collect their stories. The stories can be found, in full, in “A story of a Franklin Search Expedition,” published in Toronto in the Transactions of the Canadian Institute,  Volume VIII, 1910, pp. 398-401. 

And yet, almost twenty years before Tyrell’s work was published in 1910, a romanticized and embroidered story was released in a book of poetry written by one William Wilfred Campbell — in 1893. One of the men who went out to collect one of the stories for Tyrell was named J. A. Campbell, and so I wonder if this is how the story leaked to the poet Campbell, who then wrote a poem he named “Unabsolved,” which he published in a book titled The Dread Voyage, published in Toronto by William Briggs, 1893. You can find this book of poetry online, by the way.

The introduction to the poem “Unabsolved,” calls it “a Dramatic Monologue,” and says it is “founded on the confession of a man who went with one of the expeditions to save Sir John Franklin’s party, and who, being sent ahead, saw signs of them, but, through cowardice, was afraid to tell.” Of course we know that Anderson and his party was not sent north to the Arctic to find Sir John Franklin’s men: Chief Factor John Rae had already reported them dead four years earlier, and every man who was on the Anderson and Stewart Expedition was perfectly aware of that fact — and that included Paulet Papanakies, as well as the other three men who were sent on by Anderson to explore Maconochie’s Island.

Nevertheless, the story told in the book of poems is highly embroidered. Among many other similar lines, the poem contained these guilt-ridden words, which were certainly not expressed in any confession or story of a ship that was told to any of the men who collected the stories. Here, below, we have what is supposed to be Paulet Papanakies’s words, as he sees the ship full of John Franklin’s still-living men, just before they make their decision to walk southward, following the Great Fish River to civilization and a safety they never reached, as we know. 

Then whispering “Madness, madness,” to the dark, I crept me fearful o’er that gleaming ledge,

And saw but night and awful gulfs of dark, And weird ice mountains looming desolate there,

And far beyond the vastness of that sea. And then — O God, why died I not that hour?

Amid the gleaming floes far up that shore, So far it seemed that man’s foot scarce could go,

The certain, tapering outline of a mast, And one small patch of rag; and then I felt

No man could ever live to reach that place, And horror seized me of that haunted world,

That I should die there and be froze for aye, Amid the ice-core of its awful heart…

And crept I back the weak ghost of a life, A miserable, shaking, coffined fear, 

And spake, “I saw but ice and winds and dark, And the dread vastness of that desolate sea.”

And so the imaginary Papanakies spoke to James Anderson, and in the poem he was sent back once more, when he crept out upon the ledge again, “And saw again the night and awful dark, And that poor beckoning mast that haunts me yet.” And in the poem he returned once more to his leader, and chose “twixt evil and the good…

 And took the evil; then began my hell, And back I crept with that black lie on lips,

And spake again, “I only saw the night, And those weird mountains and the awful deep.

And the leader of the Expedition, James Anderson “moaned and spake, Poor souls! Poor souls!

Then they are doomed if ever men were doomed.” Whereat a sudden, great auroral flame

Filled all the heaven, lighting wastes and sea, And came a wondrous shock across the world,

Like sounds of far-off battle where hosts die, As if God thundered back mine awful lie,

And I fell in a heap where all was black.

Yes, it’s a lovely story — it presents a perfect image, with the aurora borealis flashing in the sky behind his shoulder as Paulet Papanakies told his lie. But it did not happen that way. There was no aurora borealis; or if there was, it was invisible in the long, light days of summer on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. And of course, Franklin’s men were, as I have already said, four years dead and everyone on this 1855 Expedition was fully aware of that fact. There was no one to rescue. There was no guilt. Papanakies told a lie, and that is the entire story.

But it’s a lovely story, is it not? A dramatic story. A fanciful tale, dodging the truth but finding a story, no matter how untruthful it may be. Poetic licence, I think it is called… 

To return to the last post of James Anderson’s Expedition, where this dramatic story supposedly occurred, go here:

When the next post in this series is published, go here:  

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2022. All rights reserved.

Well, I am still on Twitter, at @Marguerite_HBC. Like all of us twitterers, we are watching the downfall of a great social media site which we all loved, and which is being spectacularly and systematically destroyed. It will not last for long, but I am there to watch its final moments, if I can be.

In the meantime, I am also on Mastodon, and learning to use it and learning how to make it useful to me. To find me, look for I like the site, but it certainly less exciting than Twitter is and was, and will probably always be. But the folks on Mastodon do want to be another Twitter, and that is the. way it is.

My Facebook author page is Nancy-Marguerite-Anderson-Author, in Facebook Search. I post my York Factory Express posts there as well as many of my older posts that are relevant to all my stories. 






2 thoughts on “The Story of a Ship

  1. Dave Martin

    Another great post Nancy. Love your signature story telling style! Thank you! However…. your spectacular despairing for Twitter’s feigned demise confounds me. Let me comfort, if not let you in on a little secret, apparently being withheld from you like the secret kept from Mr. Anderson. Be assured it’s only a frenzied few frantically jumping ship. The reality (secret)…. most twitterers are thrilled at the prospects of less bots, less shadow banning, impersonating and censoring, in short- a much more inclusive, freer speech platform. A far better outcome in store for Twitter than the poor lads of the ill fated Franklin Expedition. Take heart dear Nancy!