Monday, September 10, 2012

The Viscount from the Beautiful Island

In my previous post, I wrote about a famous cousin of Lt. Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte. Now, I would like to shift focus to the good lieutenant himself, as well as a brief outline of his family's origins.

The Le Vesconte family traces its roots to the island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. Since 1875, the Societe Jersiaise, a society that promotes cultural studies of the island, has published the Annual Bulletin, a treasure trove of information on the history and people of the scenic island. It was through one of the Bulletin's articles, available HERE on theislandwiki, that I learned a bit about one of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated officers, including a remarkable example of family oral traditions.

The surname Le Vesconte is a corruption of the French term for viscount, vimconte. The Le Vescontes on H.T.D.'s line trace their origins to the island of Jersey and, subsequently, to Devon in the southern UK. One of their descendants, Jean Arthur, published the aforementioned Bulletin article in 1974. In it, the author detailed a quest to locate a Bible that H.T.D. took with him on the Franklin Expedition. According to the family's oral traditions, he was chosen for the Expedition "because of his knowledge of the Bering Strait." An unspecified search party later found his Bible in the snow, along with human remains. The former point puzzles me, as Lt. Le Vesconte had no prior experience in the Arctic, but his knowledge could have been obtained through study. Regardless, his friendship with Commander James Fitzjames was probably the main impetus behind his participation on the Expedition.

Arthur was able to examine a New Testament (found on King William Island) in the National Maritime Museum's collection and compare it with a sample of Lt. Le Vesconte's handwriting, but the comparison "proved inconclusive". Interestingly, the handwriting sample came from a lovely sketch of the Erebus and Terror by the lieutenant in 1845, which is reproduced in the article. Glenn M. Stein, FRGS, presents a thought-provoking discussion of this sketch HERE.

This simple example of family history opened up a doorway to a fascinating world for Jean Arthur. Such is the allure and mystique of all things Franklin: the mystery never ends, and one new discovery leads to a profusion of compelling questions.


  1. Great work Jess!! The site is very interesting.

    It is a pity that the book was so deteriorated. Imagine what unvaluable information could have been found between the glued pages...I wonder if would it be possible obtain more information from it now with the new tecnological means.

    And it is true!! Glenn is right!! the man on the sketch seems to have a camera. I´ve always thought that some plates should be sent from greenland before the ships dissapeared...

    1. Thanks, Andres! Glad to hear you had a chance to read the article. Arthur also mentioned another article on the three Le Vescontes in the Royal Navy--I'd like to get a look at that one!

      It's hard to tell if the man in the drawing has a camera or a surveyor's tripod. How wonderful it would be if someone would discover daguerreotypes taken in Greenland! Oddly, the related equipment was never found on KWI.