Mobile Menu

DNA analysis identifies sailor from 1845

Researchers have identified the skeletal remains of a member of the 1845 Franklin expedition by DNA analysis.

The 1845 Franklin expedition

In 1845, two ships carrying British sailors begun a long and perilous journey in search of a northwest passage through the Canadian Arctic. In April 1848, after being icebound for over a year, the ships were abandoned and the survivors set out for the Canadian mainland but disappeared. Under the command of Sir John Franklin, all 129 officers and crew who sailed on the voyage died. This is one of the greatest losses of life in the history of polar exploration. While researchers know the names of all individuals on board, identifying their skeletons along the route has proven problematic. 

DNA analysis identifies remains

In a study, published in Polar Record, researchers identified the skeletal remains of a member of this expedition using DNA and genealogical analyses. This is the first member of the expedition that researchers have positively identified through DNA.

Between 2013 and 2019, researchers conducted DNA analysis on 20 teeth and 21 bone samples from 9 Franklin expedition archaeological sites along the line of the April 1848 retreat. In 2019, the team identified a direct paternal descendant of Warrant Officer John Gregory, who served as Engineer on HMS Erebus, using genealogical information. Experts obtained various samples from the descendant for comparison with archaeological DNA data from the Franklin expedition. Comparison of Y-chromosome results specifically identified a molar found at the site as a possible match.

Researchers have currently extracted the DNA of 26 other members of the Franklin expedition from the remains found in 9 archaeological sites. The team hope that analysis on these remains will also yield other important information on these individuals, such as estimated age at death, stature and health.

The last information Gregory’s family had prior to this DNA match was a letter he wrote to his wife Hannah from Greenland on 9 July 1845 before the ships entered the Canadian Arctic.

Gregory’s great-great-great grandson Jonathan Gregory of Port Elizabeth, stated:

“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.

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.”

Image credit: By wirestock – freepik

More on these topics

Ancient DNA / DNA