George Cleveland (1871–1925) grew up on Hatch Road in Vineyard Haven, in a neighborhood full of extended family. He attended the old North District school on the corner of Main and Hatch in the ancient neighborhood known as “the Neck.”
His father, Henry, was a fisherman, harness maker, and livery stable driver. His grandfather, William, was a boatbuilder on the Neck. His mother, Ann, was an orphan; she had grown up in the New Bedford Orphans Home before marrying Henry at the age of 16. In his later years, Henry roasted and sold peanuts outside his daughter’s Vineyard Haven newspaper store, Vincent’s — where Mardell’s is located today.
George went to sea at the age of 14, sailing to Europe and back on his first paid stint as a seaman. At age 18, he married his pregnant 20-year-old girlfriend, Hattie Chase, who had been his next-door neighbor for most of his childhood. They soon had two children.
At 24, a new job came to Cleveland rather abruptly, probably while traveling through the New Bedford waterfront. According to author Peter Freuchen, “One evening he was hit on the head, securely tied, and thrown aboard a whaling ship setting out for Hudson Bay. When he recovered sufficiently, he was put through the usual ritual reserved for shanghaied sailors; that is, he was roundly beaten by the captain, the first mate, and the boatswain, in that order.” He had woken up aboard the 92-foot wooden bark A.R. Tucker of New Bedford, under the command of Captain Andrew West. The crew of 25 included three other Vineyard men. They would spend 17 months whaling in the northern regions of Hudson Bay, hunting bowhead whales and trading with the Inuit. Eight months after returning to the Vineyard, according to Freuchen, Cleveland was violently shanghaied a second time, and he found himself on another Hudson Bay whaling adventure.
His marriage falling apart on the Island, Cleveland’s third trip north was voluntary. He signed a five-year contract with the whaling company to open a fur trading station at Wager Bay, in what is today the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. When they arrived in the summer of 1900, Cleveland was put ashore to build his post. A second whaler who was supposed to remain behind changed his mind, leaving Cleveland alone in the desolate tundra wilderness of Hudson Bay, many hundreds of miles from the nearest permanent settlement. (Meanwhile, his estranged wife Hattie moved in “with a man not her husband,” according to the subsequent news reports, and was found dead of a morphine overdose in September 1901, in Vineyard Haven, under “suspicious” circumstances.)
Cleveland was supposed to be resupplied by his New Bedford employers the following summer, but their schooner abruptly left when they found nobody home at Cleveland’s 12- by 24-foot cabin. The next summer, in a second attempt, the would-be supply ship caught fire and burned before it could rendezvous with Cleveland. He was stranded. A British newspaper later reported, “In dire straits, he joined a tribe of Eskimos, with whom he stayed for three years. During that time he never saw a white man, never spoke English, never tasted tea, coffee, biscuits, or similar food, and existed entirely on flesh, which in winter time was raw and often rancid.”
Cleveland had been rescued and adopted by the nomadic Aivilingmiut people, with whom he learned the survival skills, Inuktitut language, and customs of his indigenous rescuers, eventually fathering at least 15 children with nine or 10 women. (His Inuktitut nickname, “Sakuuaqtiruniq” — translating into English as “the harpooner” — was a double-entendre.)
Cleveland was good at a lot of things — procreating, for one, but also trading, engineering, and surviving. A visiting Hudson Bay Co. official would later describe him as “a jack-of-all-trades, and the most practical man I met on my tour.” But he had profound weaknesses as well — navigation, for example, along with reading and writing. He was also obnoxious. “Cleveland was a big, bombastic man who, whatever the topic, was certain he was always right. There was no way you could argue with Captain Cleveland,” wrote one man who later worked for him. He was described by various sources as “loud,” “imposing,” and “lots of fun,” with a reputation for getting “uproariously drunk.” “Liquor is my favorite drink,” he reportedly told a group of visiting Danish explorers led by Knud Rasmussen in about 1922. “Any kind and any brand.” Freuchen, who traveled with Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition, added, “The Danish expedition arrived with what seemed to be a bottomless amount of liquor — for us Danes, that is; not for captains from Martha’s Vineyard.”
But the visiting Danes were nowhere to be found in February 1903, when our story continues. Cleveland was still dependent upon the Aivilingmiut of Repulse Bay, impatiently waiting for rescue by his New Bedford employers. By this time, Cleveland had fathered at least a couple of children, including one or two with Taututtiaq, an Inuit woman who was also married to a young man named Qillaq (sometimes spelled “Keedluk”), who himself had been fathered by an unknown Portuguese-speaking sailor. (The part of Taututtiaq is played by actress Rhoda Kunuk in the 2006 movie “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen”; Ludger Makkik plays Qillaq, and Cleveland by veteran French-Canadian actor Pierre Lebeau.)
Qillaq, who was also known as “Johnny Cleveland” and “Cleveland’s Johnnie,” would have a long working relationship with him, often serving as Cleveland’s interpreter. So heading south from Repulse Bay to the post at Wager Bay in early 1903 were Cleveland, Qillaq, and Qillaq’s adopted 12-year-old son, “Tommy.” Their plan was to cross narrow Repulse Bay (usually frozen solid in the 65-below-0 temperatures), then follow the shore to Wager Bay. They brought guns, a dog team, and a sled full of meat.
It took many hours to cross the ice through gale-force winds and heavily falling snow to reach the far side of Repulse Bay, until they encountered a wide stretch of open water in front of them. To their horror, they realized that the massive sheet of ice they had been crossing was being steadily blown out to sea. They turned and backtracked in a panic, dumping their meat and equipment for the sake of speed and racing north, only to find a similar 300-yard span of open water blocking the way they came. They were adrift. Backtracking again to fetch their supplies, they failed to find any of their dumped meat.
The three stranded travelers remained on their floating island of ice for five days in a raging storm, without food or water, at one point losing their empty sled into a crevasse. Cleveland would later publish his harrowing tale with the aid of writer Minna Littmann of the New Bedford Sunday Standard.
Finally, after five days, the massive sheet of ice grounded again on the northern shore, and they found themselves roughly where they had begun. Cleveland wrote, “Our first thought when we set foot on land was to find drinking water. We trudged on as fast as we could go in our exhausted condition, and about a mile from the coast came upon a large inland lake. As was to be expected in midwinter, the ice on it was seven or eight feet thick. We had no tool to break a hole through the ice except that hatchet of mine.” They succeeded, and spent a miserable night near their watering hole.
Moving onward the next morning, one of Cleveland’s starving dogs became distracted by the smell of food. By luck, the dog had stumbled upon a cache of meat that Qillaq had left the previous summer — polar bear meat and whaleskin — under a pile of rocks. “I hurried to the spot where he pawed and tugged, surrounded by the other dogs,” wrote Cleveland. “He was eating meat when I arrived. I pushed him and the other dogs back from the rock pile, got down on my knees and reached into the hole he had nosed out. My hand touched something that felt like frozen meat. I twisted and tore a piece off and put it between my lips.”
But it wasn’t Qillaq’s meat cache. They had actually discovered the grave of an Inuk who had died the previous summer. In Littman’s family-friendly 1924 retelling of the story in the New Bedford Standard, Cleveland hastily spat it out. “I was conscious of an indescribable nausea and revulsion. I spit the morsel out hastily before I had swallowed a single fragment.” But Freuchen later reported that Cleveland boasted that “he had eaten human flesh.”
They eventually made it back to the Aivilingmiut at Repulse Bay, and a few weeks later Cleveland tried again — this time succeeding in reaching his post, only to find that his employers had taken all his goods and burned it down.
Cleveland spent the remainder of his life in Nunavut, finally coming back to the Vineyard for an extended visit during 1923 to 1924 (when he was remembered by his Island relatives for refusing to eat with any utensils other than a knife), and again upon his death in 1925. He is buried in Vineyard Haven.
For more of Cleveland’s culinary adventures, Google “Captain Cleveland’s Christmas.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.