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Sir John Ross fonds (P245)

1787-1854. - 5 cm of textual records.

Administrative History - Biographical Sketch:

John Ross, naval officer, explorer and author, was born on 24 June 1777 in Balsarroch, Scotland. He was the son of Rev. Andrew Ross and Elizabeth Corsane. Ross enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1786 as a first-class volunteer and, over the years, rose through the ranks to be appointed commander in February 1812. By the age of 39 he had spent almost 30 years at sea during which he fought in numerous naval battles and was wounded no fewer than 13 times!

His life took a turn when, in the wake of increasing interest in polar exploration and the search for the northwest passage, Ross received a letter from the Admiralty on 11 December 1817 announcing that he had been chosen to lead an expedition to Davis Strait in the Canadian Arctic in search of a passage to the Pacific Ocean. Among his officers were William Edward Parry and his nephew, James Clark Ross.

The expedition set sail in April 1818. Ross and his party explored the shores of Davis Strait but did not find a passage to the west. They confirmed the 17th-century discoveries of William Baffin but, back in England, Ross's findings proved controversial, especially to John Barrow, second secretary of the Admiralty, who cast doubt on some aspects of Ross's account. Although Ross was promoted to captain on 7 December 1818, his reputation had been sullied and he was never again given a ship to command.

Ross nonetheless succeeded in convincing Felix Booth, a wealthy distiller, to finance a new voyage of exploration. The chosen ship was the Victory, a 125-ton steamer. With Ross and his nephew (as second-in-command) at the helm, the ship left London on 23 May 1829. Although early in the voyage the small ship had engine problems, it nonetheless arrived in Arctic waters, passing Lancaster Strait, then along Boothia Peninsula, where it was stopped by ice. The expedition spent the next four years in the Arctic, its ship held fast in the ice the whole time. Taking advantage of this forced rest, and with the help of the Inuit, Ross and his men explored their surroundings. On 1 June 1831 James Clark Ross located the North Magnetic Pole. Finally, in 1832 Ross and his men abandoned their ice-bound ship and set out in search of whalers, a party of whom they finally found in 1833.

Ross had set a record for length of stay in the Arctic and made important discoveries. Back home, he was hailed as a hero and received numerous awards and medals. But like in 1818, Ross got embroiled in controversy: his comments about the unreliability of the Victory's engines enraged their manufacturer, John Braithwaite. Ross also quarrelled with his nephew over credit for the discovery of the North Magnetic Pole.

From 1839 to 1846 he served in Stockholm as the British consul. Upon his return to England, he accepted to lead the 1850-1851 expedition financed by the Hudson's Bay Company in search of John Franklin, the explorer who had last been seen in 1845. The initiative failed, and this third voyage to the Arctic was Ross's last. He was 72 years old. The following year he was promoted rear-admiral, though failing health prevented him from serving. Ross died in London on 30 August 1856. He had married twice and had a son by his first wife.

(Source: Dictionary of Canadian Biography.)

Scope and Content:

The Sir John Ross fonds covers Ross's career and activities related to himself and his family. It has information on naval, military and diplomatic affairs. The documents cover the time Ross served as an officer in the Royal Navy and the conflicts in which he took part. The fonds also contains information on Arctic exploration, with Ross's exploits and those of contemporaries such as Sir John Franklin figuring almost equally. There are, in particular, several documents about the accounts of his voyages that Ross wrote upon his return to England as well as to the controversy surrounding them. Finally, the fonds has information on the time that Ross served as the British consul in Stockholm, Sweden.

There are two types of document in the fonds: correspondence received by Ross, which represents the majority of the documents in the fonds, and tickets for admission to the gallery, known as the Stranger's Gallery, of the British House of Commons. The letters were received by Ross throughout his career and discuss a variety of topics; for example, a visit by the Duck of Clarence and his ship prior to his departure in 1818; a letter of congratulations for having been appointed the commander of the Arctic expedition of 1818; offers of service; an invitation from the Russian consul to go with him to inspect a new type of submarine; a letter about delays in the laying of underwater cables; an invitation to examine a steam engine produced by Admiralty engineers; dinner invitations; letters about family and personal affairs as well as declarations of friendship; letters about navigation and treaties related to this subject; letters of congratulations received after Ross's return from his second voyage (after four years of absence); a letter about his upcoming presentation to the king of France at the Tuileries; one on the search for John Franklin; one requesting Ross's help in completing a dictionary of "Eskimo"; letters about Royal Navy battles, the wars of the early 19th century and the various commands Ross served at the time, such as that on HMS Briseis in the Baltic Sea and that on HMS Driver; letters on the accounts of his explorations written by Ross; a letter of congratulations for his nomination as consul in Stockholm; a letter about a portrait of Lady Ross; correspondence on the biography written by Ross about Lord Saumarez.

The correspondence is from a variety of sources, including Admirals Moore, Martin and Greig, Captains Griffiths, Dalrymple and Hugh Cook, Lord Granville, Lord de Grey, William Leake and Sir George Cockburn. Finally, the fonds contains two copies of an English translation of a travel account by an Inuit interpreter on the subject of Franklin's ships and other ships seen in the Arctic in 1850-1851. The interpreter mentions Sir John Ross, praising him. One copy is hand-written while the other is typed.

The fonds is divided into the following series:

  • P245/A: Correspondence received by Sir John Ross
  • P245/B: Admission tickets to the House of Commons
  • P245/C: Travel accounts by the Inuit interpreter Adam Beck