"NEW BEDFORD CAPTAIN HE KNEW AS A BOY CONFISCATED CLEVELAND’S STOCK OF FURS"
The following is a transcription of the fourth of six articles Cleveland wrote (with writer Minna Littmann) for the New Bedford Sunday Times during his year’s leave of absence from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1923-4.
See my notes at the end.
[From the New Bedford Sunday Standard, May 4, 1924:]
NEW BEDFORD CAPTAIN HE KNEW AS A BOY CONFISCATED CLEVELAND’S STOCK OF FURS
Life on a Whaler with Scotsmen Seemed Like Heaven After Living Years as an Eskimo. But When He Tried to Take Boat There Was a Fight and Northern Robinson Crusoe Won
Captain George G. Cleveland, Vineyard whaleman and Arctic trader, has told the story of his adventures in the far north to Minna Littmann of The Standard staff. They will appear for two more Sundays crammed with unusual incidents and many thrills. The fourth story, presented herewith is entitled,
Rescued by the Scots
News that a canoe party had come at last had us break camp at Wager Bay like a whirlwind. My Eskimos, alert though they were, could not move fast enough for me as we made ready for a speedy return to Repulse Bay. I grudged every moment of stowing the dried skins back in their casks, of collecting our utensils, of putting food for the voyage into our boats, of sleep until we could start. The stored up emotions of the years since I had last seen a white man whipped my impatience to a fever. I fumed at the journey, short though it was, which separated me from the captain of the Ernest Williams, whose message had brought me certainty of relief and return to my own people.
All out haste came to nothing. The happy ending is sometimes postponed in real life just as it is in fiction. We had ample reasons for gratitude when we finally reached the Ernest Williams in safety.
For a few peaceful miles I sat beneath our swelling sail, pulling at the well-filled pipe I owed to the thoughtfulness of the yet unknown Captain Murray, and watched Wager Bay recede into the distance. Shortly the sky grew overcast. A stiff breeze roughened the water, and the first snow of the season began to fall. We made Beach Point just before the storm broke in earnest, and hurried ashore. Helpless before the gale, we stuck there for days. Each day we hoped the storm would subside before the next morning, but the snow and wind persisted. Eight days of huddling on the shore brought us to the end of our provisions. The ninth day dawned without snow, but the northeaster had not abated. It was no weather to attempt a crossing with women and children in an open boat, but hunger left us no choice. We made half the distance across Repulse Bay without mishap, using all our skill to avoid the floating ice which bobbed up and down in our path, no matter how we turned. Suddenly the wind veered and flung us full against the rim of an ice mass several hundred yards in area. The gurgle of water entering the boat followed the sound of the crash.
Scrambled Onto Ice
We hastily scrambled aboard the raft of ice that had rammed us, drawing the boat up after us. The damage was comparatively slight. We forced the broken boards back into place and nailed over them a patch torn from our sail to make the craft more nearly water-tight again.
Captain Murray had daily climbed a height near his anchorage to watch for us, as he told me afterwards. He saw us set out that morning from Beach Point, and followed the progress of the boat halfway across the bay. He lost sight of us when we took down our sail to mend the leak. Convinced that we had met with serious accident, he sent boats in search of us.
We did not meet the rescue party, but we made the Ernest Williams safely despite our unseaworthy condition. I do not remember anything that happened from the time I first saw the masts of the schooner until I had stood at last on deck of her, wringing the hand of Captain Murray and the cook, the carpenter, and the harpooner who constituted her entire crew. My tongue had to struggle to pronounce English words after years of speaking only Eskimo. But I had not forgotten how to shake hands.
Return to Civilization Promised
As I ravenously consumed the hot food set before me, I learned that I was aboard a Scotch ship hailing from Dundee, come to Hudson Bay for two years’ whaling. I did not do much talking until I had scalded and soaped myself clean of the accumulated dirt of years, shaved and clipped my hair, and arrayed myself in clothing generously volunteered by the captain from his none too plentiful personal store. Then Captain Murray asked to hear my story. When it was finished, my immediate future was quickly settled. Captain Murray offered to sign me on as a member of his crew, and thus assure me of subsistence for the time being and passage to Scotland on the relief steamer Active a year hence. In return I agreed to render whatever general service I could and to go whaling for the Scots in the spring with my one remaining boat and a supplementary outfit and provisions supplied by the schooner. The question of my remuneration was left to be decided by the owners, Robert Kinnes & Company, on my arrival at Dundee.
Never Enjoyed Life More
I have never enjoyed life more keenly than I did the months I was a member of the Ernest Williams. The good food, the cleanliness, the comfort, the security and companionship of my own kind, were bliss. My good fortune was shared by the Eskimos who had befriended me. Eskimos to man 13 whaleboats, with their families, 78 souls in all, built their igloos on the ice around the schooner by invitation of Captain Murray and drew rations of tobacco, sugar, flour, and other supplies all winter long. Such liberality was a traditional policy of the whalers. It made the Eskimos theirs to command during the following whaling season.
Every day of that winter seemed a holiday to me. The special celebration of New Year’s which outranked even Christmas with the Scots was overwhelming after the lean years I had lived through. The Eskimos were invited to New Year’s dinner aboard the ship and feasted on plum duff with molasses sauce, butter for their biscuit, sugar in their tea, and similar luxuries which delighted their souls. The deckhouse was gay with signal flags, the Kinnes flag, and the Union Jack, their brightness rejoicing our color-starved senses. At its corners hung red herrings – for luck, although I found that out only by accident. The herrings sharing honors with the flags excited my curiosity so that I hauled one of them down and finding nothing unusual about it dropped it on a shelf. I became aware of the enormity of my deed several hours afterward, when I overheard the carpenter uttering maledictions upon the unknown good-for-nothing who had taken down one of the herrings. I hastened to the cabin where he was making his grievance known to Captain Murray and confessed.
“Ye’d do weel to put him ashore again with the Eskimos” shouted the irate carpenter pointing a finger at me. “We’ll hao nae mair luck while the likes of him is aboard, tearing down our lucky herrings.”
The carpenter was cool to me ever after, but his disdain did not make me unhappy. He and the cook and the harpooner found pleasure in each other’s society, while a close comradeship grew up between Captain Murray and myself. The captain was a well educated, well bred, clean-living man. I suspect he had been pretty lonely among his grog-loving crew. This was to be his last trip in the Arctic. He was going to be married when he returned to Scotland, and the Kinnes company, and after we had become acquainted he told me that if I wanted his job, and could get my captain’s papers, he thought he could swing it for me to succeed him as commander of the Williams with a five years contract.
Those few happy months on the Williams had already dulled the ache in my remembrance of the hardships I had been through, and the resolution with which I had vowed that if I ever got out of that country I would stay out. I found Captain Murray’s proposition attractive. I was delighted when he offered to teach me the advanced navigation I would need to get my captain’s papers. He gave me two hours of instruction a day, hours of undiluted pleasure.
Captain Murray and I went hunting and trapping, and made the rounds of the Eskimo encampment together for outdoor diversion all winter. We were rarely separated except when I was called to take part in the tribal celebrations of my Eskimo brothers. The laws of the tribe forbade Captain Murray’s coming with me; my responsibilities as an adopted member would not permit me to stay with him when the calls came. Those were days of strange contrast when after a session over maps and instruments in the seclusion of Captain Murray’s cabin I donned my furs to seize the kiluate and dance wild dances with the Eskimos in their snow assembly igloo; when after a civilized meal at noon I supped on the heathenish mixture of raw caribou fat, seal oil, and deer paunch which every angikok must at least taste before he takes part in a tribal ceremony.
Employers Confiscate Furs
When the whaling season of my first year with the Scots arrived, Captain Murray had persuaded me to stay with him the whole of his [illegible] instead of returning on the Active due at the end of the summer. He arranged to ship the carpenter back that trip instead - the man was glad to go - and have me take his place.
During my second summer with the Scots I camped with my Eskimo whaling outfit at the place on Lyon Inlet called Maluxeetuk, which combines a sloping beach ideal for landing whales and a hill commanding a wide view of the water. We kept 24 hour lookout for whales from the hill. During the day I divided the watch with my men. Night was almost as light as day at that season of the year, and the Eskimos of their own initiative had the older boys of their families go on duty then. They were as keen as I to catch a whale, for they received all of the animal except the baleen, and one whale meant light, heat, and food for the tribe for the winter.
Our vigilance had gone unrewarded for several weeks. I was standing lookout one nasty, dreary morning, when I observed several sailboats bobbing into range. I watched their approach without interest, knowing that the Maluxetuk Eskimos owned several boats which had been given them by whalers in years past. My own boats, one from the Williams and the one remaining from the Luce outfit, which I had promised to give Keedluk and his companions at the end of the season, were tied up on the beach below.
The strange boats landed near our boats, and the crews came ashore. One man of them started up the hill. I noted with a start that he wore a slicker. He drew nearer. I saw that he was a white man and not of the Williams’s crew. I slid from the rock on which I was perched. A few steps nearer, and I recognized the stranger as a New Bedford whaling captain whom I had known by name and sight since I was a boy. I had never had any dealings with him, and it did not occur to me that his mission could be other than friendly. Jubilant at the prospect of news from home after seven years without one word, I rushed to meet him.
My outstretched hand met thin air. The stranger held his hands behind his back. “You’re George Cleveland, aren’t you?” he began brusquely. “Before we shake hands, I’ve business to discuss with you. I’m Captain Stoner,” - he gave his real name, which isn’t Stoner. He is living still, an old man, and I’ve no wish to revive old quarrels - “representing Thomas Luce & Company. My orders are to destroy all company property in these parts. I’ve just come from burning your post at Wager Bay with everything that was in it. You have boats belonging to the company, I understand. Where are they?”
Something inside me snapped. No explanation of why I had been left to shift for myself all the years since the Francis Allen was lost, much less a friendly word, this man’s cold-blooded, even gloating announcement that he had burned a shelter which might have served some human being in distress in that cruel country, his lie - I felt sure it was a lie - that he had burned the $25,000 worth of bone and furs at the hut, and his peremptory demand for the boats infuriated me. Angry words flew fast between us. I let slip that but one of the boats was left, and it now belonged to the Eskimos. Stoner turned on his heel and started down the hill.
I followed him. Arrived at the beach, he walked towards the Luce & Company boat. I warned him not to touch it. It was no longer mine, I told him. It belonged to the Eskimos who had befriended me all the years the company had left me to starve. He had given company property to the Eskimos himself for services in time of need, and he knew no court or whaleman would dispute my right to do as I had done. He would have me to deal with if he persisted.
He paid no attention to me. His men, who had been pacing the beach, lined up to see the row. “Come on, our side!” he shouted. “Let’s move this boat.” Not a man stirred. He stepped to the boat and caught hold of the painter. I kicked it out of his hand.
“All right, we’ll fight,” he exclaimed, with a string of oaths.
“Fight we will” I agreed, and remembered uneasily that the man had a reputation for being dangerous with his fists. Stoner threw off his coat, which he was wearing over a light duck suit. I was bundled in heavy furs, but he gave me no time to get rid of them. As we sparred for the advantage of higher ground on the sloping beach, I decided he wasn’t as formidable as I had feared. He was probably stale from months on shipboard, and my muscles were hard from exercise. We exchanged blows in good earnest. I lunged abruptly, and my opponent went down, his white coat stained with blood that streamed from his jaw. His second mate lifted him by the shoulders, suggesting that perhaps he had enough. Stoner shook the man off and came at me again. A few seconds later he was picking himself up, bloodier than before.
“What about the boat?” I panted, fists still doubled.
“I’ve concluded not to take it,” he said with as much dignity as he could muster, and walked off. His men snickered delightedly.
That night Stoner’s second mate came to me and told me that the Captain had spoken the truth about the shack at Wager Bay - the mate himself had burned it to the ground on orders which he could not choose but carry out - but had lied about the furs and bone, which were safe aboard his schooner, as I had guessed. He told me other things which made clear the whole miserable scheme of which I had been the victim, conscienceless greed at the bottom of it all, but about my family he knew nothing and could tell me nothing.
I still see black when I think of that meeting on the hill with the man who might have brought me news from home. The mate’s visit and the outcome of the fight were balm to my outraged feelings at the time. To them was added a streak of extraordinary luck within the same 24 hours which helped even the score.
I had scarcely dozed off after the excitement of the day when the lurching of the boat in which I slept with one of the Eskimos awakened us both with a start. Two boys who had been keeping a night watch on the hill wriggled their heads through the skin tent which sheltered us from the drizzle. “A whale - we saw it blow - close to shore,” they whispered, and dashed away to awaken the others.
We flung our tent off the boat with one movement, pitched our sleeping bags ashore and slid into our clothes in another. A mighty muffled splash almost upon us told us that the boys had made no mistake. In the gray light - it was about two in the morning - the vast, dripping black curve of a whale’s back, the anchor tip of a monstrous tail, loomed straight ahead of us. As if by magic Keedluk and the two others of my boat crew glided into their places. We had no time or need to hoist sail. The water at Maluxeetuk is deep to the very shore; the silence was profound; the whale coming into the inlet to feed, seemed to be utterly unaware of our presence. It glided majestically nearer. A rasping, sputtering whirr; a thud, and the licking sound of swells slapping the side of the boat broke the silence. The swells reflected a single convulsive movement of the tremendous black mass, now bordered with ripples of red just visible in the dim light. Keedluk had shot a harpoon from the darting gun into the whale, so fortunately aimed that it inflicted an instant death.
Amazed at our good luck, we reached for our oars, to row the few strokes that would take us to shore. Sight of a stir in the grayness of the waters halted our movement. A spout and a streak of white water! Another whale!
The encampment on shore, roused by the boys, was already clustered at the water’s edge. In quick syllables we explained that we had no time to land our whale. We backed to shore, passed the line which held the harpooned whale in tow to the hands outstretched to receive it, cut ourselves loose from that end of the line - the greater part of it was still coiled in the tub in the bottom of the boat - and started for the second whale.
The monster rose several times before we could get near enough to throw a dart into it. My harpoon plunged deep into a vital spot, but did not kill the animal instantly as Keedluk’s had done. A long struggle began. The harpoon line spun out of its tub in great loops, the boat flew behind it, headed straight across the inlet. We bumped into and over floating ice and were splashed with chill spray; daylight grew stronger, and still our wild ride continued. The whale carried us on towards a lofty mass of drift ice which must have extended 80 feet or more below the water line. The line tautened. The whale was plunging down, down, down, to dive beneath the iceberg. The line paid out until only a few coils remained; it was only a matter of moments before we must let go or be pulled beneath the berg by our whale.
The splash of oars and the encouraging shouts from the Eskimos in the boat behind heartened us. Our comrades reached us just in time. They knotted their rope to the end of ours, we backed away, and they allowed the leviathan to have his head. His refuge under the iceberg had not availed him. The harpoon which he tried so valiantly to shake off during the hours he towed us had bled him to death. The great body came to the surface, bubbling blood. The sea was grown so angry that we did not have time to coil our ropes properly back in the tubs, but threw it in big eights into the bottom of the boats and made all speed back to camp. It was only a little after six when we landed, towing our second prize, and the Eskimo women donned their ceremonial headbands and flocked to the shore to take part in the ceremonial which must precede the beaching of every whale.
The first rejoicing was over and the Eskimos were already severing the heads from the carcasses, when a shivering procession rounded the point. Captain Stoner and his men had been camped on the other side of the hill; the freshening wind had made it impossible for them to stay there longer. I wasn’t sorry the wind drove Stoner around to the shelter of our side that morning. In the quarrel that preceded our fight he had taunted me with being a no-account whaler and had sneered at the little he said I had to show for my work in the Arctic. The sight of those two whales must have been a bitter pill for him to swallow.
The steamer Active with a relief crew to man the Williams was in when we returned to Repulse Bay. At last I was going home. It had been definitely decided, however, that I was to return within a year to take the command relinquished by Captain Murray. It would have gone hard with me to turn my back forever on the Eskimos who had been such faithful friends to me for so many years. I gave them the promised whaleboat over which I had fought with Captain Stoner - it was all I had to give - and told them that I would be with them again the following summer. The Active put on steam, and we ploughed southward, out of Hudson Bay into the Atlantic, and a few weeks later I was at home again in Vineyard Haven, welcomed as one returned from the dead.
Next Sunday, Captain Cleveland relates of famine, gales, and adventures during the five years he commanded the floating trading post “Ernest Williams.”
* “Capt. Stoner” was Cleveland’s pseudonym for Capt. George Comer, captain of the whaling schooner Era.
* The document “Report of the North-West Mounted Police By North West Mounted Police” notes that...______*
* Capt. Comer was the first to make a statement to the American press regarding Cleveland and his departure from the North. In an article published about Comer’s travels in the Oct. 29, 1905 issue of the Boston Globe, the reporter wrote:
“Capt. Comer brings news of George Cleveland of Martha’s Vineyard, who lived in a hut with a companion near the Wager river after the whaler Francis Allyn burned in 1900[sic]. For three years they took no whales, and Cleveland’s companion returned in a whaler. “I will never leave the bay until I get a head of bone,” said Cleveland, and since then he has lived a solitary life in the desolate waste. He accumulated a quantity of musk ox skins, but his hut leaked and they spoiled.
“His provisions were gone and he resolved to give it up. He went to Repulse bay to take a Scotch whaler, and upon his arrival found it had left two days earlier.
“Cleveland sat down on the beach and cried. The men at the trading station pitied him and offered to furnish him provisions and equipment. Then his luck turned. He captured two bowheads this season, which will net him $1500, and with his walrus skins and norwhal ivory he will be fairly well repaid for his five years’ toil. He well go to Scotland on a whaler to dispose of his possessions.”
* Cleveland arrived in Dundee in November 1905, and then to New Bedford the following month. He stayed only a few days before continuing on to his hometown on Martha’s Vineyard. The local newspaper, The Vineyard Gazette, wrote a very small blurb about his arrival in the local gossip column on Dec. 14, 1905: “Mr. George Cleveland, son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Cleveland of this place, who has been at Hudson’s Bay for whales and furs nearly seven years, had returned home within the week.”
Cleveland arrived home to learn of the “suspicious” death of his estranged wife Hattie in a morphine overdose in the home of her new boyfriend, the very recent marriage of his fifteen-year-old daughter Mona, and the death of his grandmother.
Cleveland sued the firm of Thomas Luce & Son in 1906 for the hardships caused by his abandonment, which he valued at $10,000. I haven’t yet learned the outcome of the suit.