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The New York Times
His ship disappeared in the Arctic 176 years ago. DNA gave a clue.
On July 9, 1845, two months after leaving Greenhithe, England, Warrant Officer John Gregory wrote a letter to his wife from Greenland describing his first sighting of whales and icebergs. Gregory, who had never been at sea before, was aboard HMS Erebus, one of two ships that set sail on Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea route through the Canadian Arctic used as a trade route should serve Asia. Sign up for the New York Times Disaster’s The Morning newsletter. The Erebus and the HMS Terror got stuck in the ice in Victoria Strait off King William Island in what is now Nunavut, Canada. In April 1848, the survivors – Franklin and nearly two dozen others had already died – set off on foot to a trading post on mainland Canada. All 129 explorers eventually perished and succumbed to brutal blizzard conditions and sub-zero temperatures. The doomed expedition lingered in the public imagination – inspirational fiction by Mark Twain and Jules Verne, and more recently the 2018 AMC series “The Terror” – fueled in part by rumors that the crew had resorted to cannibalism. The wreck lay quiet until 2014 when a remote-controlled underwater vehicle captured the silhouette of the Erebus near King William Island. Two years later, a tip from a local Inuit hunter led to the discovery of terror in the freezing waters of Terror Bay. John Gregory’s descendants would not find out about his fate until more than 175 years after he mailed the letter home from Greenland. Some sailors had been identified after being found in marked graves. But recently, Gregory’s DNA and a sample of an offspring born in 1982 were compared, making him the first discoverer of the voyage whose remains were positively identified by DNA and genealogical analysis – a process similar to that used in recent years to identify murder suspects is and victim in cold cases. Jonathan Gregory, 38, who lives in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, received an email from researchers in Canada confirming that the cheek swab he sent them confirmed that he was a direct descendant of John Gregory . He had heard of his family’s connection to the expedition, but “it was really theory” until the DNA match. (Though passing by Joe, the similarity between their names “all makes sense,” said Gregory.) A British Columbia relative who Gregory had never met posted him a Facebook message in 2019 after seeing a query from researchers Ask the descendants of the sailors on the expedition to send in DNA samples. “I took the plunge,” said Gregory in a telephone interview. “For us this is history.” Douglas Stenton, a professor at the University of Waterloo and researcher on the project, said the team, which included researchers from Lakehead University and Trent University, began focusing in 2008 on documenting locations and recovering new information about the expedition . In 2013, however, they became interested in the human remains and tried to “identify some of these men who had actually become anonymous in death”. “It is truly a story of human endeavor in one of the most challenging environments in the world,” said Stenton, “resulting in catastrophic loss of life for reasons we still do not understand.” The circumstances that led to the deaths of the crews are still unclear. The researchers have continued to compile evidence of the expedition’s failure as artifacts have been found over the years. Gregory’s remains were unearthed on King William Island in 2013, about 50 miles south of where the ships were abandoned. He most likely died within a month of disembarking the ships, Stenton said – a voyage that “wasn’t exactly a pleasant voyage in the true sense of the word”. Gregory was between 43 and 47 years old when he died. Stenton said it was a relief to finally give one of the sailors a name – and a face, as the researchers were able to make a facial reconstruction of what Gregory might have looked like – because details about the expedition “have been elusive to you know,” 175 years. “Over the past eight years, according to Stenton, the team’s researchers have been” very hopeful “that they could match a sample from a living offspring to a sailor from the pool of DNA they had collected from remains. The first 16 samples that they received did not produce a match, which made the Gregory pairing “very enjoyable,” he said. Although the identification did not change the history of the expedition, Stenton said, “The more people we can identify, the more useful information could emerge that could help us better understand “what happened to the explorers. He said he was grateful for the families who submitted DNA, whether they matched or not, and added that he was pleased To give Gregory’s family details of the seaman’s final years, he informed them that Gregory was not alone when he died as the remains of two other seamen were different l same place were found. “It’s a creepy feeling about everything,” said Gregory, “but at the end of the day, I suppose it’s closure.” This article originally appeared in the New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company