Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Biography & Autobiography Adventurers & Explorers

Hunters on the Track

William Penny and the Search for Franklin

by (author) W. Gillies Ross

McGill-Queen's University Press
Initial publish date
Jul 2019
Adventurers & Explorers, Expeditions & Discoveries
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2019
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jul 2019
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


Captains of whaling vessels were experienced navigators of northern waters, and William Penny was in the vanguard of the whaling fraternity. Leading the first maritime expedition in search of Sir John Franklin, he stood out not just for his skill as a sailor but for his curiosity about northern geography and his willingness to seek out Inuit testimony to map uncharted territory. Hunters on the Track describes and analyzes the efforts made by the Scottish whaling master to locate Franklin's missing expedition. Bookended by an account of Penny's whaling career, including the rediscovery of Cumberland Sound, which would play a vital role in British whaling a decade later, W. Gillies Ross provides an in-depth history of the first Franklin searches. He reconstructs the brief but frenetic period when the English-speaking world was preoccupied with locating Franklin, but when the means of that search – the ships chosen, the route taken, the evidence of Franklin's traces – were contested and uncertain. Ross details the particularities of each search at a time when no fewer than eight ships comprising four search expeditions were attempting to find Franklin's tracks. Reconstructing events, relationships, and decisions, he focuses on the work of Penny as commander of HMS Lady Franklin and Sophia, while also outlining the events of other expeditions and interactions among the officers and crews. William Penny is respected as one of the most influential and innovative figures in British Arctic whaling history, but his brief role in the Franklin expedition is less known. Using primary sources, notably private journals from each of the expeditions, Hunters on the Track places him at the forefront of a critical chapter of maritime history and the geographical exploration that began after Franklin disappeared.

About the author

W. Gillies Ross (1931-2019) was professor emeritus of geography at Bishop's University.

W. Gillies Ross' profile page

Editorial Reviews

"A significant new study that gives us the first clear overview of a complex, contentious, and vitally important period in the search for Franklin, Hunters on the Track is extraordinarily detailed and well researched, and will be of great value to anyone with an interest in the Franklin era." Russell Potter, Rhode Island College and author of Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search

"While this is an undeniably authoritative work, it should not be the last word on the wider 1850-51 expedition. Many more stures are waiting to be told, and future hunters on the track will be able to uncover bring new insights if they follow the detailed map drawn so carefully by W. Gillies Ross." Arctic

"The documentary record of the search for Franklin feels as vast and varied as the Arctic Archipelago itself, and Ross skillfully weaves together the many logbooks, letters, official reports, private journals, and published narratives of the events of 1850–51. Writers on the search for Franklin have tended to exalt naval men and to overlook whalers. [...] Ross's volume is an act of rehabilitation for these working people." Canada's History

"With Hunters on the Track, Ross has crafted the first detailed, comprehensive account of one of the most far-reaching searches for the missing Franklin expedition, with particular emphasis on the crucial role played in it by whaling captain William Penny. The list of at least 15 archival repositories in the Notes and Bibliography, gives some idea of the author's thoroughness and dedication to his research. Ross's style is very readable and entertaining and the text is sometimes leavened with a touch of humour." William Barr, Arctic Institute of North America, University of Calgary

Other titles by W. Gillies Ross