How the U.S. Acquired Its Territories That Aren't States

A far-flung maritime empire built on guano, chemical weapons, coal, and just because: these are the stories of the U.S. territories, outposts of coral, sand, and palm trees lost in the endless blue swells of the Pacific Ocean. And also Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on the other side. Oh, and another place called Navassa. But anyway, yeah: a seaborne sovereignty, riding majestic o’er the cresting tides of the ocean stream! Because bird poop! Let’s go!

Preamble: Congress Makes a Play for Poop

The story of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands, as most of the smaller atolls are known, begins in 1856 with the passage of the Guano Islands Act by the U.S. Congress. This law made it legal for any U.S. citizen to lay claim to any island, rock, or key not already claimed by another country if it is covered with bird poop, or guano. No, really: beginning in the 1840s people mined hundreds of thousands of tons of guano every year for use as fertilizer as well as to produce gunpowder. It was also known that many otherwise uninhabited islands have played host to giant colonies of seabirds which, over thousands of years, deposited a veritable king’s ransom of poop. Ultimately more than 100 islands were claimed under the act, which stated that U.S. possession of the islands was strictly temporary (until the guano ran out). But the federal government later took permanent possession of some of the islands for strategic purposes (or whatever).

Baker and Howland Islands, 1855 AND 1857

The first islands officially temporarily claimed under the Guano Islands Act were Baker and Howland Islands, located 42 miles from each other and a bit less than 2000 miles southwest of Hawaii. Both measure less than a square mile in area and were discovered by American whalers in 1818 and 1822, respectively.

Baker (above) was claimed in 1855—a year before the Guano Islands Act—by Captain Michael Baker, and Howland (below) was claimed two years later. Two rival companies, the American Guano Company and United States Guano Company, began mining the guano on Baker and Howland in 1857. In classic shady business fashion, in 1859 the AGC tried to take possession of Howland while the USGC wasn’t occupying the island, as required by the Guano Islands Act, leading to a lengthy court case in New York State. They ended up splitting the difference.

In the age of flight, Baker and Howland became permanent U.S. possessions to assert U.S. air supremacy in the Pacific and provide refueling stations for flights from Australia to California. This effort included a strange colonization scheme that dispatched over 130 young men from Hawaii, including U.S. soldiers, to settle these islands and relatively nearby Jarvis Island (see below) from 1935 to 1942, with four men at a time occupying each island in three-month shifts. They abandoned the effort in 1942 because of Japanese air raids, but Baker and Howland were both later reoccupied by the U.S. military.

Howland’s most famous brush with history came in 1937, when pioneering female pilot Amelia Earhart disappeared while trying to locate the tiny island during her trip around the world. The Howland “colonists” cleared a landing strip and built a beacon light but Earhart never arrived and was presumably lost over the Pacific. Both Baker and Howland are now unorganized and unincorporated U.S. territories, designated as national wildlife refuges, which form part of the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument.

Jarvis Island, 1857

A little under two square miles in area, Jarvis Island was formed by the accretion of coral reefs over thousands of years, which later became a nesting habitat for seabirds, resulting in large deposits of guano. The American Guano Company claimed Jarvis in 1857 and the U.S. took formal possession in 1858. The AGC built around a dozen buildings and a tram on the island to facilitate the mining of guano, before pulling out in 1879.

  A series of businesses tried to revive the guano mining industry with varying success throughout the later part of the century; the need to maintain human habitation as part of commercial claims led one venture to hire a “caretaker,” Squire Flockton, who lived alone on the island but then descended into alcoholism and committed suicide in 1883. Amidst uncertainty over its commercial status Britain claimed Jarvis in 1899, but the U.S. also maintained a claim, prompting it to include the island in the same colonization scheme as Baker and Howland. The Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1974, and later became part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Navassa Island, 1857 

Our first and only non-Pacific guano property, Navassa is a two-square-mile, roughly triangular island located in the Caribbean Sea between Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba. Supposedly claimed by Haiti in 1801 (Haiti didn’t actually specify ownership of the island by name), in 1857 Navassa was claimed for the U.S. by an American sea captain named Peter Duncan, who later sold his rights to guano miners.

After a pause during the Civil War, in 1865 the Navassa Phosphate Company of Baltimore resumed mining operations with hundreds of black employees brought in from the U.S. However the laborers rebelled due to poor treatment in 1889, killing five of their supervisors. Their legal defense claimed that the U.S. had no jurisdiction over Navassa, and the case eventually came before the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed that the U.S. had legal jurisdiction because of the Guano Islands Act. Three miners were condemned to death but President Benjamin Harrison later commuted their sentences to life in prison. Haiti still claims Navassa, which is now inhabited by wild goats, lizards, and snakes.

Johnston Atoll, 1858 

Back to the Pacific! Currently one square mile in area, Johnston Atoll was originally just a fraction of that size. A mere 45 acres when it was claimed under the Guano Islands Act in 1858, the majority of the present landmass of Johnston Island was created by dredging by the U.S. military in the 1950s and 1960s, using techniques similar to those currently being employed by China to enlarge natural islands and build artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea. These projects at the Johnston Atoll also created two new islands, Akau and Hikina, and enlarged a fourth smaller island called Sand Island.

The U.S. military was interested in Johnston first as a naval air base in the Pacific theater of the Second World War, and later as a staging area for nuclear tests conducted in the Pacific Proving Grounds, located in the Marshall Islands about 1000 miles to the southwest. It was also used as a base for nuclear missile tests, some of which failed, contaminating the atoll and surrounding waters with radioactive debris. During the Vietnam War, Johnston was used as a storage area for thousands of tons of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange, later linked to cancer and other diseases.

Rounding out its reputation as a tropical vacation idyll, Johnston was also used as a test site for biological weapons and a storage site for chemical weapons including sarin, VX, and mustard gas. During the 1990s it became one of the main disposal sites for chemical weapons from other U.S. military bases around the world. All this contributed to making the island a bit of a mess, although 45000 tons of radioactive soil were relocated to a fenced enclosure on the north side of the island, so it’s all good. Also, in 2010 it was infested with hyper-aggressive “yellow crazy ants.” Book your tickets now!

Kingman Reef, 1860 

One of the “barely there” territories, Kingman Reef has more going on below water than above. First claimed by the United States Guano Company in 1860 in the mistaken belief that it contained guano deposits, in fact Kingman doesn’t contain much of anything. There are roughly three acres of marine debris stretched out in two long, very narrow islands along one edge of a much larger submerged coral reef.

Kingman rises no more than five feet above sea level, so it isn’t exactly safe for lengthy visits—think tropical storms—although some brave amateur radio operators made the trek in 2000 to take advantage of its location beyond the jurisdiction of national broadcast authorities. Take a peek beneath the surface, however, and there’s a whole other world!

Midway Atoll, 1867

Most famous as the site of the pivotal Battle of Midway from June 4 to 7, 1942, Midway Atoll was first claimed under the Guano Islands Act in 1859 by an American sea captain, N.C. Middlebrooks, but the U.S. government only took formal possession in 1867 amid growing interest in trade with Asia. The westernmost island in the volcanic Hawaii archipelago, the Midway Atoll measures 2.4 square miles and was a likely location for a coaling station in the age of steamships, although nothing came of this. In 1903 Midway became one leg in the project to lay an undersea telegraph cable across the Pacific Ocean, and in the 1930s was a layover for Pan Am’s super-exclusive flying boat service.

After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial Navy hoped to lure U.S. Navy aircraft carriers that had escaped destruction in the surprise attack into a trap by threatening Midway with invasion, which would set the stage for the conquest of Hawaii. However U.S. Naval Intelligence broke the Japanese code and alerted the U.S. carrier task force, which laid a counter-trap for the attacking Japanese armada. At the Battle of Midway (with the Battle of Coral Sea a month before, one of the first in history where the combatant ships engaged each other out of visible range) U.S. planes sank four out of the six Japanese carriers, at a cost of just one U.S. carrier. The Japanese war effort never recovered.

Midway continued to serve as a naval air base and saw service during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The base was closed in 1993 and is now mostly uninhabited aside from a transient staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the site as a National Wildlife Refuge. However the runway still comes in handy: in July 2014 a United Boeing 777 was diverted to Midway amid fears of an electrical fire.

Palmyra Atoll, 1898

Located southeast of Kingman Reef, Palmyra consists of a number of small islands with a total surface area of 4.5 square miles, most of them partially connected with narrow sand causeways. First discovered in 1798, Palmyra changed hands a number of times amid multiple claims. First claimed for the U.S. in 1859 under the Guano Islands Act (despite the fact there is no guano there), in 1862 Palmyra was annexed by the kingdom of Hawaii, but then also claimed by the United Kingdom in 1889. When the U.S. finally annexed Hawaii in 1898, Palmyra formally became part of the U.S. as well. Britain was invited to sod off.

One of the islands in the atoll, Cooper, was purchased by The Nature Conservancy for $30 million in 2000 and is now a nature reserve, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers the rest of the atoll as part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Palmyra is the only incorporated, unorganized U.S. territory in existence, which (unlike the other unincorporated territories described here) makes it definitely subject to the U.S. Constitution. However, because it remains unorganized and has no permanent inhabitants, there’s no government to speak of, which makes it a bit of legal oddity.

Guam, 1898

The first permanently inhabited territory on this list, Guam was part of the spoils of the Spanish-American War, which also gave the United States temporary control of Cuba and the Philippines and permanent possession of Puerto Rico. Guam was on the list because in the age of steam-powered navies the U.S. needed coaling stations in the eastern Pacific.

The conquest of Guam was easy enough: on the way to the Philippines several American ships made a side trip to Guam, where their crews took a handful of Spanish officials prisoner (they didn’t know about the war until they were in custody). The American commander discovered that a U.S. citizen happened to be living on the island, one Frank Portusach, and put him in charge.

Over 200 square miles in area, Guam has a tropical climate similar to Hawaii and a population of around 175,000, including 65,000 native Chamorros and many immigrants from the United States—most associated with the major U.S. military presence on the island, which plays a key role in U.S. security strategy in the western Pacific. The U.S. military controls around a third of the island group, including several large bases: Andersen Air Force Base, Guam Navy Base, and Naval Force Marianas Naval Air Station (above, the capital Hagatna).

Guam was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War, leading to one of the more bizarre episodes in the island’s history: from 1945 to 1972 a Japanese Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi remained in hiding on the island, despite knowing the war ended in 1952, out of fear of American retribution. Originally one of a handful of holdouts, Yokoi managed to survive by living in a cave and hunting and foraging in the island’s forests. After being discovered by locals he returned to Japan, where he was received as a celebrity. He died in 1997 at the age of 82.

The island’s government is working to diversify its economy by encouraging other industries, principally tourism. While it may have a hard time convincing American tourists to travel the extra 4000 miles beyond Hawaii, it’s well positioned as an idyllic tropical getaway for Asia’s burgeoning middle classes.

Puerto Rico, 1898

Easily the largest and best-known U.S. territory with a population of 3.5 million, Puerto Rico was also conquered in the Spanish-American War. Unlike nearby Cuba it remained under U.S. control—in large part because it was simply smaller than Cuba and easier to subdue. As with Guam, the U.S. wanted Puerto Rico as a coaling station and naval base for its new steam-powered navy; like Hawaii and Cuba it was also a big sugar producer, and everyone loves sugar.

For decades Puerto Rico had substantial independence movement that the U.S. has resolutely ignored, and the island finally accepted a U.S.-drafted constitution creating a commonwealth in 1952 (although pro-independence extremists tried to assassinate President Harry Truman when he signed the agreement in 1952, and attacked the U.S. House of Representatives, wounding five congressmen, in 1954). In the second half of the 20th century Puerto Rico diversified its economy by cultivating tourism, also helped by low taxes that encouraged many businesses from the U.S. mainland to open up shop.

There is still a pro-independence movement, but recently Puerto Ricans seem to be favoring the option of full statehood: in the most recent referendum in 2012, 54% voted to change the commonwealth's status, and 61% opted for statehood in response to a separate question. So far there’s been no change, however, meaning Puerto Ricans still can’t vote in congressional or presidential elections.

Most recently the phasing out of special tax benefits bestowed by the federal government in 2006 has produced a fiscal crisis. When taxes were low the island’s government ran up an enormous debt—$72 billion, or around $20,000 per person—which became unserviceable when the advantageous tax rates lapsed. Governor Alejandro Padilla has advised that the territory has no way to repay the debt, but it’s not clear what the territory can do to restructure the debt.

American Samoa, 1899

The third territory on the list with actual people living on it, American Samoa was picked up in 1899 as part of a deal with Germany, which was busily assembling an insular empire in the Pacific Ocean for some reason. In addition to some real estate swaps with the British elsewhere in the Pacific, Germany ceded eastern Samoa to the U.S., which is now known as American Samoa, while Germany took western Samoa—now just plain old Samoa. The U.S. wanted Samoa as, you guessed it, a coaling station.

Measuring 77 square miles, Samoa has a population of around 56,000 and has been called an “unsung South Pacific paradise” and “America’s best kept secret.” Its climate is comparable with nearby Tahiti and Fiji, so yeah, you could definitely find worse places to visit. During the Apollo Program the Pago Pago International Airport on Samoa served as a base for the retrieval of a number of returning astronaut crews who splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean.

Wake Island, 1899

Two-and-a-half square miles in area, Wake Island was uninhabited for most of its history, except for the unfortunate survivors of a series of shipwrecks, who typically spent anywhere from a few weeks to a few months on the island before rescuers could arrive from Guam. However after the Spanish-American War the U.S. government became interested in Wake Island, located between Hawaii and the newly-conquered Philippines, as a coaling station. In 1899 the U.S. took formal possession of the island and a few years later the navy shooed off some Japanese poachers. However not much happened until the 1930s, when Wake became another layover stop for Pan Am’s flying boat service.

In the Second World War Wake suddenly came to the attention of the American public when the Japanese attacked the small U.S. force there at the same time as the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. garrison put up a spirited defense at the Battle of Wake Island, but by December 23, 1941 they succumbed to overwhelming numbers. The Japanese dug in and remained in possession of the island until September 1945, when Japan surrendered; during the Japanese occupation they executed 98 American civilian contractors who’d been captured on the island, a war crime for which the Japanese commander was later hanged. Today Wake Island is inhabited—but just barely. Around 200 U.S. Air Force personnel live on the island, which is home to a strategically important 9800-foot runway.

U.S. Virgin Islands

The fourth territory with a legit full-time population, the U.S. Virgin Islands were originally a Danish colony (yes, there were Danish colonies in the Caribbean) whose principal products were sugar and tobacco, although piracy was a close third. The U.S. expressed interest in acquiring the islands from Denmark on a number of occasions, but the deal didn’t go through until the First World War, when the U.S. Navy became concerned that German submarines might use the islands as a base to attack American shipping. In 1917 the Danish government finally agreed to sell the islands to the U.S. for $25 million.

The Virgin Islands include St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, Water Island, and many smaller islands, 136 square miles in area altogether, with a population of around 109,000, most of them the descendants of African slaves from the Virgin Islands as well as elsewhere in the Caribbean. Today the principal industry is tourism, along with rum distilling. In 1956 Laurence Rockefeller, a grandson of John D. Rockefeller, donated 5000 acres of land on St. John to the U.S. government to create a U.S. National Park.  

Northern Mariana Islands, 1945

The last island territory acquired by the U.S. is actually a whole archipelago located northeast of Guam: the Northern Mariana Islands, containing 15 main islands and numerous smaller islands, with a land area of 184 square miles and a population of around 54,000. The entire population is concentrated on three main islands: Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. Most of the inhabitants are Chamorros, as in Guam, or another native group descended from immigrants from the Caroline Islands.

The Northern Mariana Islands were first claimed by the Spanish in 1565, but in 1899 Spain threw in the towel and sold them to Germany after the Spanish-American War. The islands formed part of Germany’s implausible Pacific empire until 1914, when the Japanese conquered them at the beginning of the First World War. The U.S. in turn conquered the Northern Mariana Islands in 1944, during the island-hopping phase of the Second World War, and they would play a fateful role in bringing the war to an end.

On August 6, 1945, the U.S. Air Force B-29 Enola Gay took off from Tinian to drop the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later the B-29 Bockscar took off from Tinian to drop the “Fat Man” atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
19 Facts About the Franklin Expedition, the Real-Life Inspiration for The Terror
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The last Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin began in 1845 with the hope of discovering the northwest passage, but it turned into a grim fight for survival. As seen in AMC's supernatural series The Terror, the story of the Franklin expedition still has the power to fascinate historians more than a century and a half later. (Spoiler alert: Though the expedition happened in real life, this list also mentions key scenes in The Terror—so if you haven't seen the show and plan to, read at your own risk!)


John Franklin was born in Spilsby, a village in the English county of Lincolnshire, in 1786. By marriage, he was a step-cousin of Royal Navy captain Matthew Flinders, who inspired Franklin to join its ranks when he was only 14. Franklin circumnavigated Australia with Flinders in 1802-1803, served in the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars, and fought in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. His brave actions caught the eye of the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, who had big plans for the young lieutenant.


From a report from whaling captain William Scoresby, Jr. relayed by Sir Joseph Banks, the president of the Royal Society, Barrow learned that the Arctic appeared to be relatively ice-free in the summer of 1817. The time seemed ripe for a voyage to find a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, which would give England a lucrative trade route to Asia. In spring 1818, Barrow organized an expedition of four navy ships—the Isabella and Alexander would explore the eastern Canadian Arctic, and the Dorothea and Trent would attempt to sail over the North Pole by way of eastern Greenland and Spitsbergen. Franklin commanded the Trent but both vessels were stopped by violent storms and pack ice. (The Isabella and Alexander also turned back for an entirely different reason.)


Despite that failure, Franklin was appointed to lead an overland expedition to explore subarctic Canada in 1819. His route would take his party—which included physician/naturalist Sir John Richardson, three naval personnel, and a crew of voyageurs—from Hudson Bay to the Coppermine River delta on the Arctic Ocean. Disaster struck quickly: The party failed to return to their base camp before cold weather set in, their canoes fell apart, and they ran out of food. A voyageur allegedly killed and ate several men. Franklin and the others survived by nibbling shoe leather. On the brink of death, they were saved by Yellowknife guides who brought food and supplies. When he returned to England after this three-year calamity, Franklin was hailed as a hero—the "man who ate his boots."


By 1843, just a few blank spaces remained on the map of the North American Arctic, and the discovery of the passage seemed entirely within Britain's reach. In spring 1845, the Admiralty would send HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, freshly returned from a grueling four-year voyage in Antarctica under the command of Sir James Clark Ross, back to previously charted Lancaster Sound, which most navigators believed was the main channel leading west. From there, the men were expected to be through the Bering Strait and in Hawaii by the following year.


Illustration of members of the Franklin Expedition
Portraits of the officers on the 1845 expedition, based on Daguerrotypes taken prior to the voyage.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By this point, Franklin was a decorated naval officer and experienced explorer—but he was also 59 years old and out of shape. So when Sir John Barrow began considering commanders for the 1845 voyage, Franklin was not at the top of the list. Veteran Arctic hands Sir William Edward Parry and Ross were Barrow's first choices, but both declined. Parry hinted that Franklin desperately needed the validation of a final, triumphant voyage to crown his naval career after his disappointing stint as the lieutenant-governor of Tasmania (where Franklin and his wife Lady Jane served from 1837 to 1843). Franklin lobbied hard and convinced the Admiralty that he was the best man for the job.


Franklin commanded the flagship Erebus, which was helmed by an up-and-coming captain, James Fitzjames. On the Terror, Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was the expedition's second-in-command. Both ships had been reinforced to withstand the pummeling of Arctic ice and stocked with supplies, including scientific instruments, navigational tools, one hand-organ per ship, daguerreotype cameras, and a pet monkey named Jacko (a gift from Lady Jane). A huge library was stocked with accounts of previous polar expeditions, devotional books, volumes of Punch magazine, and novels like Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield. The ships also took an immense amount of provisions to feed 134 men for three years, including 32,224 pounds of salt beef, 36,487 pounds of ship's biscuit, 3684 gallons of concentrated spirits, and around 4980 gallons of ale and porter.


On May 19, 1845, Erebus and Terror left Greenhithe, England, and sailed for the west coast of Greenland. At Disko Bay, five men were discharged due to illness, bringing the total number of expedition crew to 129. On July 26, en route to Lancaster Sound, Franklin met two British whaleships [PDF], the Enterprise and the Prince of Wales—the last Europeans to see the Franklin expedition alive.

The Erebus and Terror continued west in the summer of 1845 and circumnavigated Cornwallis Island via Wellington Channel. The crew overwintered on tiny Beechey Island, where three crewmembers died and were buried in the permafrost. If Franklin followed the Admiralty's orders, in the spring and summer of 1846 the Erebus and Terror would have continued west to Cape Walker at 98-degree west longitude, then proceeded south [PDF] and west down Peel Sound.


On September 12, 1846, the sea froze around Erebus and Terror just north of King William Island, signaling the start of winter. The following May, a party of two officers and six men led by Lieutenant Graham Gore left a note in a cairn (tall piles of stones used as information kiosks in the treeless terrain) on the northwestern coast of King William Island. After noting the date and position where the two ships were beset in the ice, Gore wrote,

"Having wintered in 1846-7 [this was an error, the true period was 1845-1846] at Beechey Island, in lat. 74° 43' 28" N., long. 91° 39' 15" W., after having ascended Wellington Channel to lat. 77°, and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island.
Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition.
All well."

Explorers knew that the sea usually froze in late August or early September, and then broke up the following spring—but in 1847, spring and summer never arrived in their corner of the Arctic. Erebus and Terror drifted slowly and helplessly with the pack ice down the west coast of King William Island.


The Admiralty had provided Erebus and Terror with three years' worth of canned foods, including 33,289 pounds of meat, 20,463 pints of soup, and 8900 pounds of preserved vegetables.

The provider of the canned goods was Stephan (or Stephen) Goldner, who a few years later would be caught in a scandal regarding his canned foods going off rapidly—one report from 1853 said a ship needed to throw 1570 pounds of horrifically putrid canned meat overboard. Whether the Franklin expedition’s provisions suffered the same fate is debated, with one 1920s study concluding their canned meat was in perfect condition. In The Terror, assistant surgeon Henry Goodsir, who suspects there's a problem with the food, encourages poor Jacko to test the contents of one of the cans—and it doesn't end well for the monkey.


Franklin expedition note found in the cairn at Point Victory
A facsimile of the note found in the cairn published in Carl Petersen's Den sidste Franklin-Expedition med "Fox," Capt. McClintock, 1860
British Library, Flickr // Public Domain

By spring 1848, the ships were still beset, the men were approaching the end of their original food supply, and they were without their captain: Franklin and several officers and crew had died of still-unknown causes. Crozier was now leading the expedition, with Fitzjames as his second-in-command. They decided to abandon Erebus and Terror in a last-ditch attempt at survival. The men hoisted two boats on sledges and packed them full of provisions and items refashioned for survival, such as a table knife with a sharpened blade inside a sheath made from a marine's bayonet scabbard [PDF].

Then they set off in search of rescue, returning to the cairn where Gore had left his note a year before. Now, Fitzjames and Crozier wrote:

April 25, 1848—H.M. ship Terror and Erebus were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69° 37' 42" N., long. 98° 41' W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men. And start to-morrow, 26th for Back's Fish River."

The 605-mile Back's Fish River (now more commonly referred to as the Back River), navigated by Sir George Back in 1834, led toward Hudson's Bay Company trading posts in the interior. But they were hundreds of miles away from King William Island.


No one outside of King William Island had the faintest idea what had happened to the Franklin expedition when it didn't show up in the Bering Strait by 1846. The Admiralty resisted sending a rescue mission, since the Erebus and Terror had been provisioned for three years; some thought the food supply could be stretched to five years (to 1850). But Lady Jane Franklin launched a relentless campaign to force the Admiralty to act. Beginning in spring 1848—at exactly the same time that the 105 survivors abandoned ship—a series of massive search-and-rescue expeditions began combing the Arctic for clues. On August 27, 1850, a ship discovered the three graves on Beechey Island, the first tangible clue of Franklin's route, but found no letters or records. Despite that important find, subsequent expeditions in 1852 came up empty-handed.


In April 1854, Hudson's Bay Company surveyor John Rae met with several Inuit a few hundred miles east of King William Island. Rae asked if they'd seen white men or ships. One man said some families had encountered about 40 survivors marching south along the west coast of the island, dragging a boat on a sledge. Franklin's men, appearing thin and low on provisions, intimated that their ships had been crushed and that they were headed toward the mainland, where they hoped to find game. Rae relayed the Inuits' next observations to the Admiralty:

"At a later date the same season [1850], but previous to the disruption of the ice, the corpses of some 30 persons and some graves were discovered on the continent, and five dead bodies on an island near it, about a long day's journey to the north-west of the mouth of a large stream, which can be no other than Back's Great Fish River … Some of the bodies were in a tent or tents, others were under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter, and some lay scattered about in different directions. Of those seen on the island it was supposed that one was that of an officer (chief), as he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders, and his double-barreled gun lay underneath him.

"From the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life. A few of the unfortunate men must have survived until the arrival of the wild fowl (say until the end of May), as shots were heard and fresh bones and feathers of geese were noticed near the scene of the sad event."

To support the oral history, Rae purchased artifacts from the Inuit that were clearly tied to the expedition: silver spoons and forks, a star-shaped medal, and a silver plate engraved with "Sir John Franklin, K.C.H." In England, the public reacted with shock and disbelief when his account was published in newspapers.


Though research in the 1990s [PDF] and in 2016 strongly supported the cannibalism account, most Victorians thought it inconceivable that Royal Navy men would resort to "the last dread alternative." Charles Dickens captured the racist sentiment of the time when he wrote in his magazine Household Words, "No man can, with any show of reason, undertake to affirm that this sad remnant of Franklin's gallant band were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux themselves … We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel." Yet physical evidence collected over the past 160 years has consistently proven the accuracy of Inuit oral histories of the expedition's final days.


In 1859, Lieutenant William Hobson, part of a search expedition led by Captain Francis Leopold McClintock, found a trail of bones and other evidence along the southwestern coast of King William Island. Along with a boat with two skeletons and piles of supplies, Hobson located the cairn and retrieved Fitzjames and Crozier's note, the sole piece of written evidence from the Franklin expedition. According to searchers, some Inuit families had found papers and books—possibly the expedition's log books and official charts—but they had been given to children to play with and had blown away.


Back in England, Franklin was again hailed as a hero. His old friend Sir John Richardson wrote that Franklin had accomplished the mission: "They forged the last link of the Northwest Passage with their lives." Though there's no evidence of Franklin ever completing the passage, one of the rescuers, Captain Robert McClure, had a more likely claim. In 1853, his ship Investigator, approaching from the west, got stuck in ice north of Banks Island and McClure's men were forced to march to another ship that had approached from the east. They traversed the Northwest Passage in the process. But the first explorer to navigate the passage by ship, the original goal of the Franklin expedition, was Roald Amundsen in 1903-1906.


Map showing the locations of Franklin expedition relics
A map based on a 1927 Admiralty chart showing the locations of Franklin expedition relics found by search parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
Canada Department of the Interior, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the early 1980s, Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie and his research team exhumed the three bodies on Beechey Island and conducted forensic testing. He found very high levels of lead in all three, as well as in bones previously collected on King William Island. In his 1987 bestseller co-written with John Geiger, Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, Beattie suggested the lead solder used to seal the expedition's canned provisions had leached into the food, resulting in neurological impairment that could have contributed to the men's deaths. More recently, historians have moved away from the lead-in-the-cans theory. Researchers now believe the men probably succumbed to a combination of exposure, starvation, scurvy, tuberculosis, Addison's disease, and even severe zinc deficiency. The Terror gives a nod to the lead-cans hypothesis when Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) bites into some meat and spits out a metal blob; later, the Inuit woman named Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) has laid out a collection of lead bits on an overturned bowl—perhaps meant as a warning to the crew.


Multiple search efforts and scientific research projects tied to Franklin's last voyage continued in the late-19th and 20th centuries. They collected relics and bones, located graves, and partnered with Inuit communities to conduct long-term searches for more clues to the expedition's fate. Yet two significant artifacts remained missing for more than 165 years: the ships themselves. Many researchers believed that the Erebus and Terror could hold a trove of clues to the men's final activities, but the brutal climate and brief research season on King William Island stymied progress. In 2014, with funding from the Canadian government and new sonar technology, archaeologists and Inuit historians, including Franklin scholar Louie Kamookak, finally found the HMS Erebus in Victoria Strait. Two years later, a report from an Inuit hunter, Sammy Kogvik, pointed archaeologists to Terror Bay, on the southwestern coast of King William Island, where they found HMS Terror.


Without the journals from the expedition, we may never know some key facts about its fate. Historians still wonder what killed Franklin and so many of the officers and men before the Erebus and Terror were abandoned. Why did Crozier decide to march toward Back's Fish River, where possible help was hundreds of miles away, when he could have marched north to a depot of supplies and food left by an 1825 shipwreck, and where rescuers or passing whalers could have rescued them? Were the men's judgments really impaired by lead poisoning? How long did they survive? Archaeologists and Inuit oral historians continue to search for answers.


Books, tools, boots, buttons, spoons, combs, pocket watches, food tins, Crozier and Fitzjames's note, and even a piece of canned meat from Franklin's last expedition are stored in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. Artifacts retrieved from the Erebus and Terror, including the ships' bells, and other relics are part of the critically acclaimed exhibit, Death in the Ice, currently on display in the Canadian Museum of History through September 30, 2018.

Why Swaziland Was Just Renamed eSwatini

With the arrival of a new African nation, mapmakers just got a little bit busier. The king of Swaziland surprised foreign powers and compatriots alike when he recently announced that the country’s official name would revert to eSwatini, the name it went by prior to British colonialism.

King Mswati III, one of the few remaining absolute monarchs in the world, announced the name-change decision during celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the country declaring independence from Britain.

"African countries on getting independence reverted to their ancient names before they were colonized. So from now on the country will be officially known as the Kingdom of eSwatini,” Mswati announced to a crowd in the city of Manzini, located about 23 miles from the capital Mbabane.

The king said there was another motivation for the name change: to avoid being regularly mistaken for Switzerland. "Whenever we go abroad, people refer to us as Switzerland," Mswati said.

While some consider the name change to be a patriotic move, others were critical of the decision, arguing that the small country in southern Africa has more pressing issues to tackle, including poverty, hunger, and the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS.

The name eSwatini essentially means “land of the Swati” in siSwati, the local language. Editor and author James Hall took to twitter to break down the etymology of the name:

Several African nations have opted to shed the names given to them by colonial powers, including Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland), Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Djibouti (formerly French Somaliland), and others.

How hard is it for a country to change its name, though? According to eSwatini’s Ministry of Home Affairs, it “won’t happen overnight.” The country will also need to register its new name with international agencies like the UN and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Adopting a new internet domain could end up being one of the more time-consuming steps, according to the BBC. But fortunately, citizens of the country might not need to run out to get a new passport, as eSwatini is already included on the document in a smaller font.

[h/t CNN]


More from mental floss studios