Consumer DNA tests have become an important new tool for historians. Companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA (which recently announced its 5 millionth customer) can indisputably confirm relationships as distant as fourth and fifth cousins, and solve centuries-old mysteries with just a small tube of saliva.
In the 1860s, U.S. whalers began to turn their attention to the far north, chasing bowheads in the Arctic. Many went west to the Alaskan coast, but a smaller number of New England whalers went due North instead, passing through Hudson Strait and into Hudson Bay.
Dozens of Vineyard men — poorly paid and some even shanghaied by thuggish New Bedford “crimps” — wintered over in Hudson Bay during the latter half of the 19th century. Many were Wampanoag, African American, or both, like George Bolton, William Johnson, William Morton, Judson James, and G.S. Johnson. A few, like John Randall of Vineyard Haven, never made it home. (Randall was lost in the ice with a boat’s crew in Hudson Bay in 1874.)
The whalers were welcomed by the Aivilingmiut people of Kivalliq and other nomadic Inuit of what is today the Canadian territory of Nunavut. During long and dark Arctic winters, as they awaited a head start on the spring whaling season, relationships formed between the whalers and the local people — relationships which are still being untangled today. Hiram Hammett of Chilmark, of the ship A. Houghton (1876), was rumored to have fathered at least one Inuit child, for instance, although the child’s identity has not yet been learned.
George Cleveland of Vineyard Haven (1871–1925) is certainly the most notable example. Cleveland, who was shanghaied twice and ultimately abandoned by his New Bedford employers in the unforgiving Arctic wilderness, is suspected to have fathered at least 15 children with at least nine or 10 Inuit women. Cleveland, known in the north as “Sakkuaqtirungniq” (“the Harpooner”) is mostly forgotten on the Vineyard, but he is very well remembered in the North. Some idolize him, others despise him. Babies today are named after him. His larger-than-life tales can be found in numerous books and articles about the Eastern Arctic, and his character even appears in a 2006 movie, “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen.”
In just over a century, Cleveland’s offspring have multiplied exponentially. It would be fair to estimate that this 20th-century man — who shopped at Cronig’s, drove in a car, and listened to the radio — has well over 1,000 living descendants today, a significant fraction of the modern population of Nunavut. His Inuit offspring include professors, musicians, web designers, ministers, journalists, civil servants, radio hosts, artists, poets, interpreters, and social workers across the Canadian Arctic. Most of them, it seems, are on Facebook. And some of them have begun to match DNA with their Vineyard cousins.
Susan Sammurtok of Iqaluit, granddaughter of Cleveland’s Inuit daughter Siksik, writes, “His genes were very strong amongst the Inuit. There are some who resemble him a lot, look so much like him.”
Sarah Nangmalik of Iqaluit, granddaughter of Cleveland’s Inuit daughter Ipiksaut, writes, “Several in my family are named ‘Sakkuaqtirungniq’ after Capt. George Cleveland. There are tons and tons of his family up here. Many of us know each other.”
Judy Swan of Huntington Beach, Calif., is the granddaughter of florist Lewellyn Cleveland of Vineyard Haven, one of the two Vineyard-born children George left behind on the Island. She writes, “Stories of him have been passed down the family. When George visited his family on the Vineyard in 1923, he was an unusual person to the two grandchildren old enough to remember him. He told outrageous stories, and mealtime was an anomaly to them, as George ate with a knife. However he was viewed, George Cleveland was truly a legend.”
Arvagasugiaqpalauqtut Kinguvaanginnik Qaujinasungniq (Whalers DNA Project, in Inuktitut) is dedicated to identifying Martha’s Vineyard whalers who have living Inuit descendants in Nunavut and the Hudson Bay area, and to reuniting distant cousins from North and South. Are you related to a Vineyard whaler who wintered in Hudson Bay? Consider getting your DNA tested!
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.