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His ship disappeared in the Arctic 176 years ago. DNA offered a clue.
On July 9, 1845, two months after leaving Greenhithe, England, Warrant Officer John Gregory wrote a letter to his wife in Greenland in which he described seeing whales and icebergs for the first time. Gregory, who had never been at sea before, was aboard HMS Erebus, one of two ships to sail in Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the legendary Northwest Passage, a sea route across the Canadian Arctic which would serve as a trade route to Asia. Sign up for the New York Times Disaster Strike The Morning newsletter. The Erebus and HMS Terror got stuck in the ice in the Victoria Strait off King William Island in what is now the Canadian territory of Nunavut. In April 1848, the survivors – Franklin and nearly two dozen others had already died – marched for a trading post on the Canadian mainland. All 129 explorers eventually perished, succumbing to brutal blizzard conditions and subzero temperatures. The doomed expedition lasted in the public imagination – the inspirational fiction of Mark Twain and Jules Verne, and, more recently, the AMC 2018 series “The Terror” – prompted in part by rumors that the crew had resorted to resorting to to cannibalism. The wreckage remained silent until 2014, when a remotely operated underwater vehicle captured the silhouette of the Erebus near King William Island. Two years later, advice from a local Inuit hunter led to the discovery of the Terror in the icy water of Terror Bay. John Gregory’s descendants only learned of his fate more than 175 years after sending the letter from Greenland. Some sailors had been identified after being found in marked graves. But recently Gregory’s DNA and a sample of a descendant born in 1982 were matched, making him the first explorer on the voyage whose remains were positively identified by DNA and genealogical analyzes – a process similar to that used these years to identify murder suspects. and victims 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 he was a direct descendant of John Gregory. He had heard of his family’s connection to the expedition, but until the DNA match, “that was really theory.” (Although he goes by Joe, the similarity between their names “just makes a lot of sense,” Gregory said.) A relative living in British Columbia, whom Gregory had never met, sent him a Facebook message in 2019 after seeing a request from researchers to ask descendants of expedition sailors to send DNA samples. “I took the plunge,” Gregory said in a telephone interview. “For us, it’s 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 in 2008, focusing on documenting the sites and retrieving new information about the shipment. But in 2013, they became interested in human remains, seeking to “identify some of these men who had indeed become anonymous in death.” “It really is a story of human effort in one of the world’s most difficult environments,” Stenton said, “resulting in catastrophic loss of life, for reasons we still don’t understand. The circumstances that led to the disappearance of the crews are still unclear. Researchers have continued to gather clues to the expedition’s failure, as artifacts have been unearthed over the years. Gregory’s remains were excavated in 2013 on King William Island, about 50 miles south of the site where the ships had been abandoned. He likely died within a month of leaving the ships, Stenton said – a trip that “wasn’t necessarily a pleasant trip in every sense of the word.” Gregory was between 43 and 47 when he died. Stenton said it was a relief to finally put a name on one of the sailors – and a face, as researchers were able to create a facial reconstruction of what Gregory might have looked like – because the details on the expedition have “remained elusive for, you know, 175 years. Over the past eight years, Stenton said, the team’s researchers had” very high hopes “that they would be able to match a sample to a living descendant to a sailor from the pool of DNA they had collected from the remains. The first 16 samples they received failed to produce a match, making Gregory’s pairing “very rewarding “He said. While the identification did not change the narrative of the expedition, Stenton said” the more individuals we can identify, there might be some useful information that could help us. to better understand “what happened to the explorers. He said he was grateful for the families who had sent in DNA, whether matched or not, adding that he was happy to be able to provide Gregory’s family with details of the sailor’s later years. He informed them that Gregory was not alone when he died, as the remains of two other sailors were found at the same site. “There’s a weird feeling about it all,” Gregory said, “but at the end of the day, I guess it’s closing.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company