By Sara Wilmshurst
Nearly every time I review archival documents, I bump into a story that I’m desperate to pursue, but it is not relevant to the project at hand. This time I decided to just do it. My Google Alerts tell me it is time; Parks Canada’s underwater archaeology team recently announced they are returning to the Franklin Expedition shipwrecks after a two-year pause. This story is about one of the people who searched for the Franklin crews when there was still hope of finding them alive. We are most fortunate Judith Desjarlais told her own story. It appears no one else did.
In 1900 at Peace River Crossing Judith Cardinal, formerly Hope, nee Desjarlais, applied for Métis scrip. While recounting her places of residence Judith reported she “went north with Dr. Rea’s [sic] relief expedition to assist Sir John Franklin.”
At first glance it is not surprising a Métis woman joined a Franklin relief expedition. European travelers often relied on Indigenous women to feed, clothe, and shoe the party, translate, negotiate, and guide, and generally keep everyone alive and upright. Dr. John Rae, the Orcadian physician turned fur trader turned explorer, openly admired the Indigenous women he encountered and valued their skills. He was also unusual among his contemporaries because he usually named the Indigenous people he wrote about. I read through Rae’s correspondence, journals, and autobiography, and historians’ accounts of his expeditions, but found no reference to Judith Desjarlais (or any other woman) in the parties. Continue reading