May I Not Ask This of You? Correspondence of Lady Franklin and Admiral Beaufort.

Author: Kathryn H. Stutz.

These three letters, written by Jane, Lady Franklin during the late 1840s and early 1850s, demonstrate the type of correspondence that Lady Franklin maintained with her friends and allies; in this case, with Sir Francis Beaufort, the naval hydrographer. Each letter also evokes the vast network of different figures—from politicians and philanthropists to navigators and sea-captains—upon whose support Lady Franklin relied during her efforts to rescue her “gallant & unfortunate husband” (as one correspondent so aptly named him). This blog post places these three letters back into their historical and social context by providing short biographies of relevant individuals. Although not every historical individual mentioned by Lady Franklin can be discussed in depth, the “Sources” section at the conclusion of the post should hopefully provide guidance on further reading about these individuals and the roles they played in the search for Sir John Franklin and his lost crew.

Letter #1

This letter (UKHO Mss. LP1857/F273), is tentatively dated to 1851, but the date that appears in Lady Franklin’s own handwriting, “Thursday night, April 6,” suggests that the message was instead written in 1848 (as we can confirm later). Just one page long, this is a short letter, thanking Beaufort for allowing Lady Franklin to read a letter written to him by a certain “excellent Captn Kellet.”

Captain Kellett

“I fear Captn Kellett will have to wait long for the Plover.”

— Jane, Lady Franklin in Letter #1 to Sir Francis Beaufort

At the time of this letter’s writing, Captain Henry Kellett (1806-1875) was serving in command of the survey ship HMS Herald as part of a British hydrography mission along the west coast of the Americas. When concerns were raised (by Sir James Clark Ross, among others) about the safety of Sir John Franklin’s expedition in 1848, Captain Kellett was reassigned to bring supplies to HMS Plover under the command of Captain Thomas Moore.

Captain Moore & Mr. Pullen

“Every now & then I ask Sir James Ross if he is looking after Mr. Pullen that he may be off in time (for Mr. P. told me he was not going till June) and again, if he is not going to send fuller instructions to Captn Moore than he appeared to have when he left.”

— Jane, Lady Franklin in Letter #1 to Sir Francis Beaufort

In addition to Captain Kellet, rerouted from his prior hydrography mission, three major search expeditions began the search for Franklin, as the end of 1847 bled into the beginning of 1848: (1) the Rae-Richardson overland expedition, (2) the sea voyage of Sir James Clark Ross in command of Enterprise and Investigator, sailing directly into the Arctic from the British Isles to the east, and (3) the aforementioned voyage of HMS Plover under the command of Captain Thomas Edward Laws Moore, who took the longest and most circuitous route toward Franklin’s last known location, sailing around Cape Horn and north along the Pacific coast of the Americas to approach the Arctic from the west. One of Captain Moore’s officers was a certain William John Samuel Pullen (1813-1887), i.e., the “Mr. Pullen” of Lady Franklin’s letter. This “Mr. P” was given the particular job of traveling further east into the Arctic ice toward the Mackenzie River delta. Pullen and his crew successfully reached the delta, where they wintered twice over with no sign of Franklin, before making their way overland to rendezvous with the Hudson Bay Company. 

(For more discussion of these events, see Ross 2002—especially page 63—under Sources. Pullen’s own account of his overland search remained unpublished until 1979.) 

Captain Thomas Edward Laws Moore
Captain Henry Kellett

Letter #2

The second letter (UKHO Mss. LP1857/F432) is a single folded sheet, inscribed on three of its four sides and dated, in Lady Franklin’s hand at the bottom, “Friday, March 10th.” Therefore, it was likely composed in 1854, the only year in the early 1850s during which the 10th of March fell on a Friday. By this time in the early 1850s, more than five years had passed since Lady Franklin’s previous letter, and Sir John Franklin had not been seen in almost a decade. The time had already come and gone for drastic measures; namely: invoking the Americans. 

After Sir James Ross, Captain Moore, and Mr. Pullen had all returned to England with no word of Franklin (and John Rae returned with answers that were, at best, distasteful) Lady Franklin began looking abroad for further aid in the quest to find her husband. This second letter details some of the complex international fallout of Lady Franklin’s alliances with various American individuals, as Jane acted as a liaison between Sir Francis Beaufort and her own friends and allies on the other side of the Atlantic. 

(Note: the second half of Lady Franklin’s message deals with another document that she calls her “long letter, as long as a pamphlet,” written to the British Board of the Admiralty. For more information about this long letter and its political fallout, see Russell 2005, 51-52.)

Mr. Grinnell

“I give you the following excerpt from a letter I received yesterday or day before from Mr. Grinnell.”

— Jane, Lady Franklin in Letter #2 to Sir Francis Beaufort

On the financial side, the most generous American supporter of Lady Franklin’s cause was without a doubt the Massachusetts-born businessman Mr. Henry Grinnell (1799-1874), who  made his fortunes through the New York shipping business, and, after his retirement, funded multiple American expeditions of Franklin and his crews, including the First and Second Grinnell Expeditions. Through this financial support for Arctic rescue ventures, Grinnell worked to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and the United Kingdom—though this path toward international cooperation was often rocky, as Lady Franklin’s letter illustrates. Her quotation from Mr. Grinnell alludes to one major problem posed by having American and British explorers tracing out the same territory: very often, both nations would name part of the Arctic separately, resulting in contested naming conventions and messy maps.   

Dr. Kane

“I am glad you are pleased with Dr. Kane’s Book. Sir F. Beaufort says of it to judge Kane, ‘so fairly and yet so firmly told—so full—so vigorous and yet so appreciably polished.’ It will again be published here in the course of ten days. I would rather not call Sir F. Beaufort’s attention to the name of Grinnell on Prince Albert Land. I have not the least doubt he will do just the right thing when he has all proper evidence before him.”

— Henry Grinnell, quoted by Jane, Lady Franklin in Letter #2 to Sir Francis Beaufort

Having just received a letter from Mr. Grinnell requesting that Sir Francis Beaufort not be made aware of the matter of the conflicting names, Lady Franklin’s first order of business was to copy out the relevant portions of Grinnell’s letter and send these quotations directly to Beaufort. As closely as Lady Franklin held her American allies, she held Beaufort closer; and she needed him to be completely informed of the situation so that he could serve as “the stedforth, courageous & most enlightened champion of [her] interests” before the Board of the Admiralty. 

At the same time, Lady Franklin’s impassioned appreciation of her American friends gave both herself and Beaufort a way of navigating the issue of “Grinnell Land” vs. “Prince Albert Land.” Fortuitously for Lady Franklin, who cared less for national pride than for her husband’s safe return (or, barring that impossibility, her husband’s good name), the man who had named “Grinnell Land,” was the very flower of American manhood: Elisha Kent Kane (1820-1857), a Philadelphia-born explorer and medical doctor who became an American celebrity due to his participation in the First Grinnell Expedition to the Arctic in search of the lost British naval voyage of Sir John Franklin, followed by his leadership of the Second Grinnell Expedition a few years following. In between these two expeditions, Kane delivered numerous lectures about the Arctic regions, building popular support for Lady Franklin’s cause. 

(For additional discussion of the impact of Arctic exploration on relations between the United States and the United Kingdom, see Robinson 2006).

Dr. Elisha Kent Kane
Mr. Henry Grinnell

Letter #3

Lady Franklin’s third and final letter in this collection (UKHO Mss. LP1857/F414) is tentatively dated to 1853, but Lady Franklin herself writes that her messages had been written about a year following the date on the included letter (dated January 12, 1853), suggesting sometime in 1854 instead. This later date is supported by Lady Franklin’s reference to Beaufort choosing his successor in the office of Naval Hydrographer (the new appointee was Beaufort’s assistant John Washington, hence Lady Franklin’s assertion that “if his name be Washington, he ought to set about it con amore”), a transfer of power that occurred in January, 1855. 

The main letter opens with Lady Franklin bemoaning the situation of “Captain Moore, late of the Plover,” (see Letter #1, above; note that by “late,” Lady Franklin here means “prior,” rather than “deceased”). Fairly swiftly, however, Lady Franklin finds herself reminded of Dr. Kane (see Letter #2, above), and the rest of her letter delves even more deeply into the question raised in that earlier missive about the diplomatic negotiations surrounding the naming of geographical features in the Arctic:  

“The mention of Captn Ommanney reminds me of Dr Kane & I hope you will do me the kindness to read the enclosed letter received a year ago from the late Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Kennedy, or at least the postscript of it, and allow me to remind you that the Admiralty to whom I forwarded this letter, conveyed to him through me a courteous written reply assuring him that […] the subject should be investigated and every justice done to the American navigators.” 

Lady Franklin appeals even further to the image she is crafting for Beaufort of the genteel and diplomatic American by including a copy of the long and chivalrous letter written a year prior by “the late [read: former] Secretary of the [United States] Navy, Mr. Kennedy.”

Mr. Kennedy

“I thank you very heartily for your letter of the 3rd of Decber and for the very kind terms which you speak of my young friend Dr. Kane. It has afforded me a very lively gratification to have it in my power to second his generous zeal in your behalf, by giving him permission to join the new expedition.”

— John Pendleton Kennedy, in a letter to Jane, Lady Franklin, copied into Letter #3 to Sir Francis Beaufort

John Pendleton Kennedy (1795-1870), was a politician, businessman, and orator from Baltimore, Maryland, whose service as Secretary of the United States Navy under President Millard Fillmore was characterized by Kennedy’s enthusiasm for American exploration in the Arctic. Kennedy provided vocal support for Grinnell’s two expeditions, and eagerly befriended Grinnell’s young champion Dr. Kane, encouraging him to join scientific societies like the Maryland Institute in Kennedy’s native Baltimore, where Kane lectured to packed crowds of supportive spectators. When Kane died unexpectedly in Cuba only a few years after his second Arctic expedition, his body was transported by rail back to his hometown of Philadelphia, with a stop in Baltimore for a grand funeral at the Maryland Institute, hosted by a tearful Mr. Kennedy, who also served as one of Kane’s pallbearers. 

(For more on Kane’s life, see Elder 1858, who also writes in great detail about Kane’s funeral, as does Chapin 1999. This triangular connection between Lady Franklin, Mr. Kennedy, and Mr. Peabody is also briefly observed in a footnote in Elce 2009.)

Mr. Peabody 

“[…] the new expedition which, through the aid of Mr. Grinnell & Mr. Peabody, & others in your own country, is about, once more, to tempt the perils of Arctic navigation, in search of your gallant & unfortunate husband.”

— John Pendleton Kennedy, in a letter to Jane, Lady Franklin, copied into Letter #3 to Sir Francis Beaufort

Henry Grinnell, mentioned above (see Letter #2) was not the only American businessman who donated extravagantly to the cause of finding Sir John Franklin. George Peabody (1795-1869), another Massachusetts-born philanthropist, lived much of his life in London despite maintaining an American shipping empire centered in Baltimore, Maryland. When Peabody learned of the First Grinnell expedition, he expressed interest in adding his own financial support, and ultimately, contributed $10,000 to the Second Grinnell expedition. (“George Peabody,” 1994)

Mr. John Pendleton Kennedy
Mr. George Peabody


These three letters written by Jane, Lady Franklin to Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort open up an expansive view of the complex web of political, financial, social, and scientific interactions that held together the international community of Arctic exploration in the middle of the nineteenth century. From British Royal Navy officers like Captain Kellet and Captain Moore, to American philanthropists like Grinnell and Peabody, Lady Franklin maintained an intricate network of correspondence as she worked toward the vanishingly small hope of recovering her husband; her advocacy work on his behalf persuaded men on both sides of the Atlantic, spurring them into action in the grand yet ultimately hopeless task of finding Franklin. 


Black, Andrew R. 2016. John Pendleton Kennedy: Early American Novelist, Whig Statesman, and Ardent Nationalist. Louisiana State University Press.

Chapin, David. 1999. “Science Weeps, Humanity Weeps, the World Weeps: America Mourns Elisha Kent Kane.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 123(4): 275-301. 

Elce, Erika Behrisch. 2009. As Affecting the Fate of My Absent Husband: Selected Letters of Lady Franklin Concerning the Search for the Lost Franklin Expedition, 1848-1860. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Elder, William. 1858. Biography of Elisha Kent Kane. Philadelphia: Childs and Peterson. 

“George Peabody and the Search for Sir John Franklin, 1852-1854.” 1994. Peabody Journal of Education 70(1): 84-92.

Pullen, William. 1979. The Pullen Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin: The Original Diaries Log, and Letters of Commander W.J.S. Pullen. Edited by H.F. Pullen. Toronto: Arctic History Press.

Robinson, Michael F. 2006. The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Ross, W. Gillies. 2002. “The Type and Number of Expeditions in the Franklin Search 1847-1859.” Arctic 55(1): 57-69.

Russell, Penny. 2005. “Wife Stories: Narrating Marriage and Self in the Life of Jane Franklin.” Victorian Studies 48(1): 35-57.