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DNA used to identify sailor of doomed 1845 Franklin arctic expedition

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    TORONTO, Ontario (CTV Network) — A sailor of the doomed 1845 Franklin arctic expedition was identified using DNA from a living relative in South Africa, marking the first time a crew member of that infamous voyage has been positively identified this way.

The skeletal and tooth remains were confirmed to belong to Warrant Officer John Gregory, an engineer aboard HMS Erebus, according to scientists at the University of Waterloo (UW), Lakehead University, and Trent University.

“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,” Gregory’s great-great-great grandson Jonathan Gregory of Port Elizabeth, South Africa said in a press release.
“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.”

There were 129 sailors travelling aboard the two ships, the Erebus and HMS Terror, as part of Sir John Franklin’s northwest passage expedition to the arctic in 1845. Three years later, the ships became trapped in ice and survivors fled the ship in a desperate attempt to get to safety.

None survived. Skeletal remains of different crew members have been uncovered since the mid-19th century.

Gregory’s remains were first discovered in 1859 and buried in 1879. His remains, along withtwo other sailors were on King William Island, Nunavut, according to Douglas Stenton, co-author of a new paper about the discovery published in the journal Polar Record.

“We are extremely grateful to the Gregory family for sharing their family history with us and for providing DNA samples in support of our research,” Stenton, an adjunct professor of anthropology at UW, said.

Prior to this DNA match, the last information Gregory’s family had about his voyage was in a letter he wrote to his wife Hannah while he was in Greenland, before the ships entered the Canadian Arctic.

To date, the genetic material of more than two dozen crew members has been found across nine different sites.

“We’d like to encourage other descendants of members of the Franklin expedition to contact our team to see if their DNA can be used to identify the other 26 individuals,” Stenton said. His colleague from Trent University said the remains have painted quite a picture of who these men were.

“Analysis of these remains has also yielded other important information on these individuals, including their estimated age at death, stature, and health,” said Anne Keenleyside, anthropology professor and co-author of the paper.

This latest discovery helps to complete the story of the Franklin victims, Robert Park, Waterloo anthropology professor and study co-author, said.

“The identification proves that Gregory survived three years locked in the ice on board HMS Erebus. But he perished 75 kilometres south at Erebus Bay.”

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