It was his very first time at sea. It did not go well. Warrant Officer John Gregory is the first member of the doomed 1845 expedition in search of the fabled Northwest Passage to the East to be identified by DNA. All 129 explorers perished, most on King William Island in the Canadian Arctic, after the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror became wedged in ice. Shortly after departing England, Gregory wrote to his wife from Greenland, describing his first time observing whales and icebergs, per the New York Times. "Kiss baby for me—and accept the same yourself," he added, per the Toronto Star. That July 1845 letter was the last his family heard of him. The engineer was in his mid-40s when he died on King William Island, probably within a month of 105 survivors abandoning the ships to search for a trading post in April 1848, per Phys.org. Some sailors were identified from marked graves.
To identify Gregory, researchers matched samples taken from tooth and bone to a sample provided by a great-great-great grandson in South Africa. Researchers had put out a call for DNA from descendants in 2019. University of Waterloo professor Douglas Stenton, co-author of the study published in Polar Record, says the team compared 16 submitted samples to DNA extracted from 27 expedition members across nine sites on the 1848 path of retreat before getting the match. He adds more identifications might reveal what happened to the crews. "It's really a story of human endeavor in one of the world's most challenging environments, resulting in a catastrophic loss of life, for reasons that we still don't understand," Stenton tells the Times. There have been several theories, from cannibalism to freezing temperatures to lead poisoning. (The wreck of the HMS Erebus has given up treasures.)