Frozen In

Schooner Era in the Ice

Original content by: Sally Motycka

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

This painting of the Era depicts an image of the 87-foot whaling schooner "frozen in."  As this was a regular occurrence for the Era, perhaps it was painted from one of Captain George Comer's documentary photographs.  The Era, built in Boston in 1847 and famous for her speed, comfort, and decorative qualities, served as a passenger and freight vessel in her early years, sailing on a regular schedule as a "packet" ship between Boston and New York.  The Era was later bought in New Bedford, and fitted out for whaling.  Later, in 1864, due to her sturdy construction, she was purchased and added to the New London whaling fleet that was known for whaling up north in the Arctic.  When she was sold to C.A. Williams in 1877, it was the first investment partnership in a whaling schooner for Captain John O. Spicer.  After years of serving as the captain of the Nile, Spicer, in 1879, took command of the Era until his retirement in 1892.  On his return trip, the first of 10 voyages to Hudson Bay, Spicer took the skeletal bones of a right whale (said to  be 125 feet long!) back to Groton, CT.  While in the Arctic whaling regions, he hired his trusted Inuit friend, Johnnibo, and crew to whale for him at his whaling station in the North Bay on Hudson Strait, while he continued whaling even further north (where he discovered the Spicer Islands).  

Spicer continued his expeditions aboard the Era, maintaining his whaling stations and working with the Inuit. However, he took a short leave for three years from 1882-1885, while he made arrangements for a court case in which his Inuit friend Johnibo was a witness (a court case that became known as "The Case of the Missing Whales").  During this time, the Era left New London twice for the Arctic under Captain Timothy F. Clisby.  The Era became New London's only whaler for the next decade.  Captain George Comer, who had made his first whaling voyage with Spicer in 1875, reunited with Spicer in 1889, sailing as his mate.  When Spicer retired, the Era was fitted for Comer, and in 1895, he set out on his first voyage as master.  The Era had been purchased by a New Bedford company, and there was much competition among the men who sailed out of New Bedford, as well as those who sailed from New London.  Comer proved himself to be an equal.  In addition to his whales, he brought home the Dutch crew of the bark Desdemona that had been crushed up North on the ice.

Captain George Comer remained in command of the Era, making voyages to the Hudson Bay area.  He maintained the friendships established by Spicer with the Inuit, and established new friendships with the Aivilik people.  Comer continued whaling and hunting, but also brought back valuable research and ethnographic information on the Inuit culture.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why do you think that the Era was used for so many different purposes over her lifetime?
  2. What types of activities do you think sailors would participate in if they were frozen into Arctic ice for an entire winter?
  3. Why do you think an artist would have painted this subject?