This was then: George Fred

Photos of long-ago Martha’s Vineyard.

Captain George Fred Tilton of Chilmark. Courtesy of Chris Baer

Captain George Fred Tilton of Chilmark, like his brother Zeb, is a Vineyarder of such legend that it’s not even necessary to use his last name. Zeb may be better known now, but George Fred was a full-blown New England celebrity in his day. He was a rough, drunk, salty old whaler who had spent years sailing in the Pacific arctic. Described as “a real man” and “quite a wag,” a good impersonator who “could tell stories by the hour,” Tilton once won a fistfight with heavyweight boxing champ Joe Choynski in a San Francisco barroom.

George Fred earned his initial fame during the winter of 1897-98 when he left on foot from the northern tip of Alaska on a 2,000-mile adventure to find help for some three hundred whalers trapped in the ice and running out of food. He had been third mate of the steam whaler Belvedere of San Francisco when it became trapped in the ice with three others off Point Barrow. Another eight whalers were similarly trapped in a widely separated arc along the Alaskan coast, including the schooner Rosario under the command of Capt. Edwin Coffin of Edgartown. It was later named “the ice catch of 1898.”

While fellow Belvedere officer and Chilmark native Stephen F. Cottle stayed behind with their vessel and crew, George Fred left for California on foot, walking, sledding, and hitching his way back to San Francisco to get help. Tilton travelled some two thousand miles in five months and 22 days, and ultimately made it to California, but news of the disaster had reached home months earlier, and a rescue expedition was already in progress.

In his final years, George Fred became the caretaker of the famous whaler Charles W. Morgan. In 1928, he wrote an autobiography, “Cap’n George Fred Himself”, still found on many Island bookshelves.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.