Maps, Chains, and Cairns: The Historical Accuracy of AMC’s The Terror

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Erebus and Terror (AMC Studios)

A wall of sea ice piled high against the shores of a desolate island. A masquerade beneath the shifting lights of the aurora borealis. A dying man with golden chains threaded through his skin.

These haunting images, likely to remain vividly connected to the Franklin Expedition in the minds of enthusiasts, were beautifully captured in the first season of AMC’s critically acclaimed series, The Terror. An adaptation of Dan Simmons’s novel of the same name, this depiction of the expedition’s fate may be a fictional imagining, complete with supernatural horrors, but its close attention to historical details true to Franklin’s voyage, as well as other arctic missions, gives it a richness that enables viewers to step back in time and come as close as possible to appreciating life aboard the doomed ships. Here’s a look at some of the historical details that audiences may have missed:


In the first episode, “Go for Broke,” Crozier’s steward Thomas Jopson talks with the captain about the spirits to be served that night at dinner. “Sir John abstains, of course, but it’s Allsopp’s for the rest.” This is a reference to an ale produced by the Burton-on-Trent brewery of Samuel Allsopp & Sons. The company became renowned for their pale ale which was particularly popular with British colonists in India. Arctic expeditions favored the brand for the high alcohol and caloric content of their ale, which resisted freezing. In 2015, an unopened bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, brewed specially for Sir George Nares’s 1875 Arctic expedition, sold at auction for over $500,000.

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Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) and Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) (AMC Studios)

The Glory of a Good Pudding

Leaving Terror to return to Erebus, James Fitzjames comments on Crozier’s disposition, saying that he cannot even take joy in “a good pudding.” This comment was probably intended by the show’s writers to reflect an incident from Fitzjames’s life, as documented in William Battersby’s 2010 biography. During the 1835-36 Chesney Expedition to the Euphrates, Fitzjames and a mischievous fellow mate endeavored to lighten the mood of what was a decidedly challenging voyage by stealing a pudding from one of their passengers, a luxury they managed to devour before being caught. The inclusion is a reminder of both Fitzjames’s positive outlook and the buoyant sense of fun that marked his naval career prior to his appointment to Erebus.


Over the course of the first two episodes, we are introduced to three animals accompanying the expedition: a female Capuchin monkey named Jacko, a Newfoundland dog named Neptune, and a cat that Sir John refers to in the third episode as Fagin. All three animals were indeed present on the voyage, although the cat’s name is lost to history and all three were actually berthed aboard Erebus. As the series depicts, it was Sir John’s wife, Jane Franklin, who gifted Jacko to the expedition, and in his journal of the Atlantic crossing – sent back to England from Greenland before the expedition disappeared – Fitzjames related how the ship’s crew had made the creature a set of warm clothes which it first donned on June 23, 1845, as the expedition moved north into colder waters.

Mates on Beechey

When David Young falls ill, Stephen Stanley – the surgeon on Erebus – rebukes him for not having reported his failing health sooner, reminding him of his three mates buried on Beechey. Beechey Island, off the southwestern coast of Devon Island, served as quarters for the expedition’s first winter of 1845-46. Three men were lost during that winter: John Torrington, the twenty year old stoker on Terror, died on the first of January, 1846, followed by twenty-five year old John Hartnell, able seaman from Erebus, on January 4th. The third man – a thirty-two year-old Royal Marine from Erebus named William Braine – passed away on the third of April. All three were buried on Beechey, with wooden headboards carved by their shipmates. The graves on Beechey, and the traces of a winter encampment on the island, were among the first signs of the lost expedition to be discovered by rescue missions sent out by the Admiralty to locate Franklin and his men.

The Autopsy

After David Young’s death, Harry Goodsir – Assistant-Surgeon on Erebus – performs an autopsy to determine if the young man succumbed to scurvy. As a trained anatomist, Goodsir would have been the most likely candidate for conducting such a procedure. And there is evidence that he did just that. When the body of John Hartnell was exhumed by Owen Beattie in 1986, the team was surprised to find an autopsy suture on the man’s chest. It is probable that his death, coming only three days after the demise of John Torrington, raised enough of an alarm among the expedition’s leadership to encourage an investigation into its cause.

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Chart showing the lack of knowledge about the east coat of King William Island (AMC Studios)

Going for Broke

At the officers’ meeting aboard Erebus, Crozier argues against Sir John’s plan to sail down Victoria Strait, urging his commander to instead attempt an eastern route via the waters of what are known today as James Ross Strait and Rae Strait. Crozier believes – correctly – that King William “Land” might actually be an island, but the charts available to the expedition at that time did not show this. In the spring of 1830, James Clark Ross had led a sledging foray from Felix Harbor on the east coast of the Boothia Peninsula where his uncle John Ross’s expedition was trapped by ice. Ross followed the northern coast of King William Island, bestowing the name Victory Point on the westernmost land he managed to reach. Having walked across the strait between Boothia and King William Island that would later bear his name while it was frozen solid, however, Ross was unable to determine whether it was ice or land he had crossed. The charts carried with the Franklin Expedition reflected this uncertainty, and no doubt contributed to Franklin’s decision to opt for the western route down Victoria Strait. Unfortunately, Victoria Strait received the full brunt of the ice driven southward from the Arctic Ocean and would trap both ships irrevocably. Ironically, although Crozier was correct about there being a route around the east side of King William, subsequent surveys of James Ross and Rae Straits discovered a multitude of shoals which would likely have made it impossible for the two ships to safely navigate those waters. *

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Sledging to the shore of King William Island (AMC Studios)

The Ice

In the second episode, “Gore,” the sledge team led by Erebus’s first lieutenant Graham Gore, journey to the northwest coast of King William Island and find the ice stacked high against the shore. The thickness of the pack off this part of the island’s coast – the coast exposed to the mighty ice of the Arctic Ocean, channeled south through Victoria Strait – was attested by several explorers on subsequent search missions. During his sledge voyage along the north and northwestern coasts of King William Island in May of 1830, James Clark Ross noted the severity of the ice off Cape Felix, describing it as “the heaviest masses that I had ever seen in such a situation. With this, the lighter floes had been thrown up, on some parts of the coast, in a most extraordinary and incredible manner,” adding that in places the force of the pack had pushed ice as far as a half mile inland. During his 1859 sledge journey in search of evidence of Franklin’s fate, Lt. William Hobson – of Francis Leopold McClintock’s expedition aboard the yacht Fox – followed roughly the same route as Ross had in 1830 and also noted the thickness of the pack to the northwest of the island. “The pressure of the ice on the Northern end of the island is severe… To seaward, to the Northd. of the island the ice as far as I could see is very rough and crushed into large masses.”

The Second Message

In a particularly memorable scene, Gore’s party deposits the iconic message – the only documentation of the expedition’s fate that has yet been discovered – in a stone cairn at Victory Point, then depart to place a copy of the same message in a cairn further to the south. The second cairn was built on a point on the southern shore of Collinson Inlet which now bears Gore’s name. It was discovered in May 1859 by Lt. William Hobson during his exploration of King William Island’s northern and western coasts. The note is identical to the one Hobson found in the Victory Point cairn except for the omission of the additional text added by James Fitzjames to that record in April 1848.

Arctic Carnivale

Many viewers unfamiliar with the history of Arctic exploration may have doubted the plausibility of the carnivale held on the ice in Episode 6, “A Mercy.” Although we have no idea whether the Franklin Expedition ever held such an event, we do know that other Arctic expeditions whiled away the long dark months of the Arctic winters with similar festivities. During his 1819-20 Arctic expedition, William Edward Parry organized the Royal Arctic Theatre for the crews of his ships, Hecla and Griper. Over the course of the expedition’s winter at Melville Island, Parry’s men were kept happily engaged building sets and making costumes, with the officers performing both male and female parts in comedic or musical plays. The Theatre proved so successful that Parry opened it again during his 1821 expedition to Repulse Bay in the ships Fury and Hecla. During his 1824 expedition to Prince Regent Inlet, Parry varied the winter routine by holding a carnival much like that depicted in The Terror, complete with officers and crew members sporting exotic costumes and cavorting to music. Interestingly, Francis Crozier was present as a midshipman on Fury for both of these latter voyages.

Left on Terror

In the seventh episode, “Horrible From Supper,” several crew members of the Terror volunteer to stay behind on the icebound ship rather than accompany the rest of the expedition on their forced march to the south. This element of the plot correlates with a theory, proposed by David C. Woodman amongst others, that one or possibly both ships were re-manned after the initial abandonment in April 1848. According to this theory, some number of crew members returned to the frozen ships, possibly because the retreat south had proven too arduous or because indications of a breakup of the ice had given hope that the ships would be released and able to sail to freedom. The location of Erebus’s wreck in Queen Maude Gulf suggests that the ship moved south with the drifting pack or was sailed south during a brief period of open water. Inuit testimony concerning Erebus relates that it ran aground at a place they referred to as Utjulik, an island off the northwest coast of the Adelaide Peninsula. Inuit also reported to explorers that several surviving members of the expedition may have continued to live on the ship as late as 1849 or 1850, as evidenced by gunshots, footprints, and deck sweepings observed around the grounded ship.

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James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) pens the iconic Victory Point note (AMC Studios)

Memory Lapse

At the beginning of the eighth episode, “Terror Camp Clear,” Fitzjames and Crozier retrieve the message deposited a year earlier by Lt. Gore, to which Fitzjames appends a further message detailing the abandonment of the ships and the death of Sir John Franklin. While writing about Franklin’s death, Fitzjames pauses, possibly because he is struggling to remember the date on which Franklin died. This dramatic moment alludes to the mental difficulties the men – whether suffering at this point from scurvy, lead poisoning, or some other malady – would possibly have been exhibiting. It is also a subtle allusion to the mistake Fitzjames made in writing the original message in 1847. In the first message, he dated the expedition’s winter encampment at Beechey Island to 1846-47, when it was actually 1845-46. By the winter of 1846, the expedition had already reached the vicinity of King William Island and become entrapped in the ice of Victoria Strait. This mistake – repeated on both the message left at Victory Point and the one deposited in a cairn at Graham Gore Point – has been theorized to indicate that Fitzjames may have been suffering some mental impairment as early as spring 1847.

“Terror Camp Clear”

The title of the eighth episode can be heard called out by one of the officers, possibly Lieutenant Little, in the background of the scene in which Goodsir and Bridgens confer in the medical tent. The title of the ninth episode – “The C, the C, the Open C” – is spoken over the scene in that episode in which John Bridgens sits beside the body of the deceased Henry Peglar. Both lines are taken from what are popularly known as the “Peglar Papers:” a relic of the lost expedition found by Leopold McClintock during his search in 1859. McClintock found the collection of papers upon the body of an expedition member dressed in the uniform of a ship’s steward. Consisting of scraps of handwritten text – many written backwards – the papers include doggerel and reminiscences of earlier voyages in warmer climes, as well as the seaman’s certificate of Henry Peglar, captain of the foretop on Terror. This led to speculation that the papers belonged to Peglar, although the uniform on the corpse is not consistent with what Peglar would likely have worn. It is possible that the body was that of William Gibson or Thomas Armitage, both of whom were stewards aboard Terror and had served with Peglar on previous voyages. The enigmatic nature of the writings in the Peglar Papers – some of which seems to relate to events surrounding the abandonment of the ships and possibly the funeral of an officer – continue to intrigue and baffle Franklin scholars.

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Lieutenant Edward Little (Matthew McNulty) (AMC Studios)

Golden Chains

In the final episode “We Are Gone,” Crozier stumbles upon the dwindled remnants of his command in a grisly shore encampment. There he finds mutilated body parts in the ashes of campfires, and the Terror’s dying first lieutenant, Edward Little, with golden chains pierced through the skin of his face. This particularly haunting scene draws upon Inuit testimony concerning a site believed to have been located on the Canadian mainland near the mouth of the Great Fish River. During his 1879 expedition in search of Franklin relics and records, the American soldier and explorer Frederick Schwatka was told by an elderly Inuit woman named Tuktutchiak of her discovery, many years earlier, of several bodies grouped around a ship’s boat. One of the bodies, which at that time still retained its flesh, wore several pieces of jewelry – including a watch – attached by chains to his ears. Schwatka and other members of his party, bewildered by this description, apparently endeavored to convince the woman that she had been mistaken, but to no avail.


In both the first and last episodes of the season, Crozier is referred to by the Inuit as Aglooka, an appellation which meant “one who takes long strides.” It was a name Crozier had first been given in 1822 while a midshipman on William Edward Parry’s expedition to Repulse Bay. The Inuit of Igloolik addressed him as Aglooka, and when this same name was later used by the Inuit of the King William Island region to identify the leader of the surviving crew members they had encountered, it was naturally assumed that the man in question was Crozier. Although this is a possibility, it is not conclusive evidence of Crozier’s presence among the survivors. Aglooka was a name given by the Inuit to many explorers, including the Hudson Bay Company’s John Rae. Yet some of the same Inuit who spoke of Aglooka to American explorer Charles Francis Hall also possessed spoons marked with Crozier’s family crest and initials, and some further claimed that “Aglooka” was alive and well the last time they had encountered him. The melancholy, enigmatic ending of Crozier’s story on the television series is thus eerily evocative of the mystery that still envelops his fate.

* Fergus Fleming, in his book Barrow’s Boys, gives the draught of the two ships as 19ft, though this is disputed by other sources. For an excellent discussion of the possibility of Erebus and Terror sailing down James Ross and Rae straits, please see Russell Potter’s blog Visions of the North.


Battersby, William. James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition.     Toronto: Dundurn, 2010.

Beattie, Owen and John Geiger. Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. 1987. Vancouver: Greystone, 2017.

DeGrace, Amber. “Arctic alchemy and the Allsopp’s Ale Adventure.” Huffpost, 02 August 2010, Accessed 30 November 2018.

Fleming, Fergus. Barrow’s Boys. Grove Press, 1998.

Hutchinson, Gillian. Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found. Bloomsbury, 2017.

Klutschak, Heinrich. Overland to Starvation Cove: With the Inuit in Search of Franklin, 1878-1880. Translated by William Barr, University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Mangels, James. Papers and Despatches Relating to the Arctic Searching Expeditions of 1850-51-51: Together with a Few Brief Remarks as to the Probable Course Pursued by Sir John Franklin. London: F. & J. Rivington, 1852. HathiTrust,

Potter, Russell. Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.

Ross, John, Sir. Narrative of a Second Voyage in Search of a North-West Passage, and of a Residence in the Arctic Regions During the Years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833. London: A. W. Webster, 1835.

“Samuel Allsopp & Sons.” Craft Beer & Brewing, Accessed 30 November 2018.

Stenton, Douglas, R. “A Most Inhospitable Coast: The Report of Lieutenant William Hobson’s 1859 Search for the Franklin Expedition on King William Island.” Arctic, vol. 67, no. 4, 2014, pp. 511-522,

All screencaps from The Terror are from

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