Pressed by Franklin's wife and others, the Admiralty launched a search for the missing expedition in 1848. Prompted in part by Franklin's fame and the Admiralty's offer of a finder's reward, many subsequent expeditions joined the hunt, which at one point in 1850 involved eleven British and two American ships. Several of these ships converged off the east coast of Beechey Island, where the first relics of the expedition were found, including the graves of three crewmen. In 1854, explorer John Rae, while surveying near the Canadian Arctic coast southeast of King William Island, acquired relics of and stories about the Franklin party from the Inuit. A search led by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859 discovered a note left on King William Island with details about the expedition's fate. Searches continued through much of the 19th century.
In 1981, a team of scientists led by Owen Beattie, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, began a series of scientific studies of the graves, bodies, and other physical evidence left by Franklin crew members on Beechey Island and King William Island. They concluded that the crew members whose graves had been found on Beechey Island most likely died of pneumonia and perhaps tuberculosis and that lead poisoning from badly-soldered cans was also a likely factor. More recently it has been suggested that the primary source of this lead may not have been tinned food, which was in widespread use in the Royal Navy at the time, but the unique water system fitted to the expedition’s ships. Cut marks on human bones found on King William Island were seen as signs of cannibalism. The combined evidence of all studies suggested that cold, starvation, lead poisoning, and disease including scurvy killed everyone on Franklin's last expedition.
After the loss of the Franklin party, the Victorian media, notwithstanding the expedition's failure and the reports of cannibalism, portrayed Franklin as a hero. Songs were written about him, and statues of him in his home town, in London, and in Tasmania credit him with discovery of the Northwest Passage. Franklin's lost expedition has been the subject of many artistic works, including songs, verse, short stories, and novels, as well as television documentaries.
In 1804, Sir John Barrow became Second Secretary of the Admiralty, a post he held until 1845, and began a push by the Royal Navy to complete the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada and to navigate toward the North Pole. Over the next four decades, explorers including John Ross, David Buchan, William Edward Parry, Frederick William Beechey, James Clark Ross, George Back, Peter Warren Dease, and Thomas Simpson made productive trips to the Canadian Arctic. Among these explorers was John Franklin, second-in-command of an expedition towards the North Pole in the ships Dorothea and Trent in 1818 and the leader of overland expeditions to and along the Arctic coast of Canada in 1819–22 and 1825–27. By 1845, the combined discoveries of all of these expeditions had reduced the relevant unknown parts of the Canadian Arctic to a quadrilateral area of about . It was into this unknown area that Franklin was to sail, heading west through Lancaster Sound and then west and south as ice, land, and other obstacles might allow, to complete the Northwest Passage. The distance to be navigated was roughly .
Most of the crew were Englishmen, many of them from the North Country, with a small number of Irishmen and Scotsmen. Aside from Franklin and Crozier, the only other officers who were Arctic veterans were an assistant surgeon and the two ice-masters.
At the Whalefish Islands in Disko Bay, on the west coast of Greenland, 10 oxen carried by the transport ship were slaughtered for fresh meat; supplies were transferred to Erebus and Terror, and crew members wrote their last letters home. Before the expedition's final departure, five men were discharged and sent home on Rattler and Barretto Junior, reducing the ships' final crew size to 129. The expedition was last seen by Europeans in early August 1845, when Captain Dannett of the whaler Prince of Wales and Captain Robert Martin of the whaler Enterprise encountered Terror and Erebus in Baffin Bay, waiting for good conditions to cross to Lancaster Sound.
Over the next 150 years, other expeditions, explorers, and scientists would piece together what happened next. Franklin's men wintered in 1845–46 on Beechey Island, where three crew members died and were buried. Terror and Erebus became trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846 and never sailed again. According to a note dated 25 April 1848, and left on the island by Fitzjames and Crozier, Franklin had died on 11 June 1847; the crew had wintered on King William Island in 1846–47 and 1847–48, and the remaining crew had planned to begin walking on 26 April 1848 toward the Back River on the Canadian mainland. Nine officers and fifteen men had already died; the rest would die along the way, most on the island and another 30 or 40 on the northern coast of the mainland, hundreds of miles from the nearest outpost of Western civilization.
After two years had passed with no word from Franklin public concern grew, and Lady Jane Franklin as well as members of Parliament and British newspapers urged the Admiralty to send a search party. In response, the Admiralty developed a three-pronged plan put into effect in the spring of 1848 that sent an overland rescue party, led by Sir John Richardson and John Rae, down the MacKenzie River to the Canadian Arctic coast. Two expeditions by sea were also launched, one entering the Canadian Arctic archipelago through Lancaster Sound, and the other entering from the Pacific side. In addition, the Admiralty offered a reward of £20,000 "to any Party or Parties, of any country, who shall render assistance to the crews of the Discovery Ships under the command of Sir John Franklin". After the three-pronged effort failed, British national concern and interest in the Arctic increased until "finding Franklin became nothing less than a crusade. Ballads such as "Lady Franklin's Lament", commemorating Lady Franklin's search for her lost husband, became popular.
Many joined the search. In 1850, eleven British and two American ships cruised the Canadian Arctic. Several converged off the east coast of Beechey Island, where the first relics of the lost men were found, including the graves of John Shaw Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine. No messages from the Franklin expedition were found at this site.
Next were Chief Factor James Anderson and HBC employee James Stewart, who traveled north by canoe to the mouth of the Back River. In July 1855, a band of Inuit told them of a group of qallunaat (Inuktitut for "whites") who had starved to death along the coast. In August, Anderson and Stewart found a piece of wood inscribed with "Erebus" and another that said "Mr. Stanley" (surgeon aboard Erebus) on Montreal Island in Chantrey Inlet, where the Back River meets the sea.
Despite the findings of Rae and Anderson, the Admiralty did not plan another search of its own. Britain officially labeled the crew deceased in service on 31 March 1854. Lady Franklin, failing to convince the government to fund another search, personally commissioned one more expedition under Francis Leopold McClintock. The expedition ship, the steam schooner Fox, bought via public subscription, sailed from Aberdeen on 2 July 1857.
In April 1859, sledge parties set out from Fox to search on King William Island. On 5 May, the party led by Royal Navy Lieutenant William Hobson found a document in a cairn left by Crozier and Fitzjames. It contained two messages. The first, dated 28 May 1847, said that Erebus and Terror had wintered in the ice off the northwest coast of King William Island and had wintered earlier at Beechey Island after circumnavigating Cornwallis Island. "Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well ", the message said. The second message, written in the margins of that same sheet of paper, was much more ominous. The message, dated 25 April 1848, reported that Erebus and Terror had been trapped in the ice for a year and a half and that the crew had abandoned the ships on 22 April. Twenty-four officers and crew had died, including Franklin on 11 June 1847, just two weeks after the date of the first note. Crozier was commanding the expedition, and the 105 survivors planned to start out the next day, heading south towards the Back River.
The McClintock expedition also found a human skeleton on the southern coast of King William Island. Still clothed, it was searched, and some papers were found, including a seaman's certificate for Chief Petty Officer Henry Peglar (b. 1808), Captain of the Foretop, HMS Terror. However, since the uniform was that of a ship's steward, it is more likely that the body was that of Thomas Armitage, gun-room steward on HMS Terror and a shipmate of Peglar, whose papers he carried. At another site on the western extreme of the island, Hobson discovered a lifeboat containing two skeletons and relics from the Franklin expedition. In the boat was a large amount of abandoned equipment, including boots, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and many books, among them a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield. McClintock also took testimony from the Inuit about the expedition's disastrous end.
Two expeditions between 1860 and 1869 by Charles Francis Hall, who lived among the Inuit near Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island and later at Repulse Bay on the Canadian mainland, found camps, graves, and relics on the southern coast of King William Island but none of the Franklin expedition survivors he believed would be found among the Inuit. Though he concluded that all of the Franklin crew were dead, he believed that the official expedition records would yet be found under a stone cairn. With the assistance of his guides Ebierbing and Tookoolito, Hall gathered hundreds of pages of Inuit testimony. Among these materials are accounts of visits to Franklin's ships, and an encounter with a party of white men on the southern coast of King William Island near Washington Bay. In the 1990s, this testimony was extensively researched by David C. Woodman, and was the basis of two books, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery (1992) and Strangers Among Us (1995), in which he reconstructs the final months of the expedition.
The hope of finding these lost papers led Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka of the U.S. Army to organize an expedition to the island between 1878 and 1880. Traveling to Hudson Bay on the schooner Eothen, Schwatka, assembling a team that included Inuit who had assisted Hall, continued north by foot and dog sled, interviewing Inuit, visiting known or likely sites of Franklin expedition remains, and wintering on King William Island. Though Schwatka failed to find the hoped-for papers, in a speech at a dinner given in his honor by the American Geographical Society in 1880, he noted that his expedition had made "the longest sledge journey ever made both in regard to time and distance of eleven months and four days and , that it was the first Arctic expedition on which the whites relied entirely on the same diet as the Inuit, and that it established the loss of the Franklin records "beyond all reasonable doubt". The Schwatka expedition found no remnants of the Franklin expedition south of a place known as Starvation Cove on the Adelaide Peninsula. This was well north of Crozier's stated goal, the Back River, and several hundred miles away from the nearest Western outpost, on the Great Slave Lake.
Although the trek found archeological artifacts related to 19th-century Europeans and undisturbed disarticulate human remains, Beattie was disappointed that more remains were not found. Examining the bones of Franklin crewmen, he noted areas of pitting and scaling often found in cases of Vitamin C deficiency, the cause of scurvy. After returning to Edmonton, he compared notes from the survey with James Savelle, an Arctic archeologist, and noticed skeletal patterns suggesting cannibalism. Seeking information about the Franklin crew's health and diet, he sent bone samples to the Alberta Soil and Feed Testing Laboratory for trace element analysis and assembled another team to visit King William Island. The analysis would find an unexpected level of 226 parts-per-million (ppm) of lead in the crewman's bones, which was 10 times higher than the control samples, taken from Inuit skeletons from the same geographic area, of 26–36 ppm.
After obtaining legal permission, Beattie's team visited Beechey Island in August 1984 to perform autopsies on the three crewmen buried there. They started with the first crew member to die, Leading Stoker John Shaw Torrington. After completing Torrington's autopsy and exhuming and briefly examining the body of John Hartnell, the team, pressed for time and threatened by the weather, returned to Edmonton with tissue and bone samples. Trace element analysis of Torrington's bones and hair indicated that the crewman "would have suffered severe mental and physical problems caused by lead poisoning". Although the autopsy indicated that pneumonia had been the ultimate cause of the crewman's death, lead poisoning was cited as a contributing factor.
During the expedition, the team visited a place about north of the grave site to examine fragments of hundreds of food tins discarded by the Franklin's men. Beattie noted that the seams were poorly soldered with lead, which had likely come in direct contact with the food. The release of findings from the 1984 expedition and the photo of Torrington, a 138 year-old corpse well preserved by permafrost in the tundra, led to wide media coverage and renewed interest in the lost Franklin expedition.
Recent research has suggested that a much more likely source for the lead was the ships' fresh water systems rather than the tinned food. K.T.H. Farrer observed that “it is impossible to see how one could ingest from the canned food the amount of lead, 3.3 mg per day over eight months, required to raise the PbB to the level 80 μg/dL at which symptoms of lead poisoning begin to appear in adults and the suggestion that bone lead in adults could be ‘swamped’ by lead ingested from food over a period of a few months, or even three years, seems scarcely tenable.” . In addition, tinned food was in widespread use within the Royal Navy at that time and its use did not lead to any significant increase in lead poisoning elsewhere. However, and uniquely for this Expedition only, the ships were fitted with converted railway locomotive engines which required an estimated one tonne of fresh water per hour when steaming. It is highly probable that it was for this reason that the ships were fitted with a unique water system which, given the materials in use at the time, almost certainly produced large quantities of drinking water with a very high lead content. This seems to represent a much more likely source for the high levels of lead observed in the remains of expedition members than the tinned food.
Beattie and his team had noticed that someone else had attempted to exhume Hartnell. In the effort, a pickaxe had damaged the wooden lid of his coffin, and the coffin plaque was missing. Research in Edmonton later showed that Sir Edward Belcher, commander of one of the Franklin rescue expeditions, had ordered the exhumation of Hartnell in October 1852 but was thwarted by the permafrost. A month later, Edward A. Inglefield, commander of another rescue expedition, succeeded with the exhumation and removed the coffin plaque.
Unlike Hartnell's grave, the grave of Private William Braine was largely intact. When he was exhumed, the survey team saw signs that his burial had been hasty. His arms, body, and head had not been positioned carefully in the coffin, and one of his undershirts had been put on backwards. The coffin seemed too small for him; its lid had pressed down on his nose. A large copper plaque with his name and other personal data punched into it adorned his coffin lid.
The most significant immediate consequence of the last Franklin expedition was the mapping of several thousand miles of hitherto unsurveyed coastline; as Richard Cyriax has noted, "the loss of the expedition probably added much more [geographical] knowledge than its successful return would have done". At the same time, it largely quelled the Admiralty's appetite for Arctic exploration; there was a gap of many years before the Nares expedition, and when Nares declared that there was "no thoroughfare" to the North Pole, his words marked the end of the Royal Navy's historical involvement in Arctic exploration, and the end of an era in which such exploits were widely seen by the British public as worthy expenditures of human effort and monetary resources. As a writer for The Athenaeum put it, "We think that we can fairly make out the account between the cost and results of these Arctic Expeditions, and ask whether it is worth while to risk so much for that which is so difficult of attainment, and when attained, is so worthless. The navigation of the Northwest Passage in 1903–05 by Roald Amundsen effectively ended the centuries-long quest for the Northwest Passage.
Fictional treatments of the final Franklin expedition begin with Jules Verne's Journeys and Adventures of Captain Hatteras, (1864), in which the novel's hero seeks to retrace Franklin's footsteps and discovers that the North Pole is dominated by an enormous volcano. The German novelist Sten Nadolny's The Discovery of Slowness (1983; English translation 1987) takes on the entirety of Franklin's life, touching only briefly on his last expedition. Other recent novelistic treatments of Franklin include Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here, William T. Vollmann's The Rifles (1994), John Wilson's North With Franklin: The Journals of James Fitzjames (1999); and Dan Simmons's The Terror. The expedition has also been the subject of a horror role-playing game, Walker in the Wastes.
Franklin's last expedition also inspired a great deal of music, beginning with the ballad "Lady Franklin's Lament" (also known as "Lord Franklin"), which originated in the 1850s and has been recorded by dozens of artists, among them Martin Carthy, Pentangle, Sinéad O'Connor, the Pearlfishers, and John Walsh. Other Franklin-inspired songs include Fairport Convention's "I'm Already There", and James Taylor's "Frozen Man" (based on Beattie's photographs of John Torrington).
The influence of the Franklin expedition on Canadian literature has been especially significant. Among the best-known contemporary Franklin ballads is "Northwest Passage" by the late Ontario folksinger Stan Rogers (1981), which has been referred to as the unofficial Canadian national anthem. The distinguished Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood has also spoken of Franklin's expedition as a sort of national myth of Canada, remarking that "In every culture many stories are told, (but) only some are told and retold, and these stories bear examining ... in Canadian literature, one such story is the Franklin expedition. Other recent treatments by Canadian poets include a verse play, Terror and Erebus, by Gwendolyn MacEwen that was broadcast on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio in the 1960s, as well as David Solway's verse cycle, Franklin's Passage (2003).
In the visual arts, the loss of Franklin's expedition inspired a number of paintings in both the United States and Britain. In 1861, Frederic Edwin Church unveiled his great canvas "The Icebergs"; later that year, prior to taking it to England for exhibition, he added an image of a broken ship's mast in silent tribute to Franklin. In 1864, Sir Edwin Landseer's "Man Proposes, God Disposes" caused a stir at the annual Royal Academy exhibition; its depiction of two polar bears, one chewing on a tattered ship's ensign, the other gnawing on a human ribcage, was seen at the time as in poor taste but has remained one of the more powerful imaginings of the expedition's final fate. The expedition also inspired numerous popular engravings and illustrations, along with many panoramas, dioramas, and magic lantern shows.