Captain George Comer

An Arctic Ethnologist

Original content by: Sally Motycka

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Standing in front of his home on Mount Parnassus Road in East Haddam, Connecticut, is Captain George Comer, retired from a dynamic life at sea. Veiled behind the railing and plants, his wife, Julia Chipman Comer, sits on the front porch below one of two of the running lights from the whaling schooner Era. Comer initially went to sea as a whale man, but his explorations surpassed the average sailor. Comer had an affinity for ethnography and natural history.  He found friendships in the people of the Far North and also spent time collecting bird specimens, particularly in the South Atlantic Ocean. Highly regarded by world’s leading anthropologists and museum curators, the Captain spent his last years here on the porch telling stories-and passionately sharing his extensive knowledge.

There is no doubt that George Comer took advantage of a myriad of opportunity in his lifetime. Having only 2 years of formal schooling and an unsettled childhood (he moved frequently living in an almshouse and an orphanage) George, age 11, was placed with the Ayers family on their farm in East Haddam. Immersion and experience instructed George Comer. In 1875 at the age of 17, George Comer walked 25 miles to New London. Perhaps longing for something other than farm life, or feeling the call of the sea, as many young men of his day, he boarded the barque Nile with Captain John O. Spicer.

Spicer took an interest in Comer but the aspiring young sailor temporarily left whaling to participate in the companion sealing industry instead. Comer visited many remote regions during his sealing voyages, including Cape Horn, Cape Hope and the South Shetland Islands. Fourteen years later, in 1889, Comer signed as second mate aboard Era, rejoining Captain Spicer and the whaling trade. In 1897 Franz Boas, a highly esteemed anthropologist currently working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, asked Spicer to gather information about the "Esquimaux" people of the Hudson Bay Regions.  Spicer, who had retired at the time, introduced Boas to Captain Comer.

The territorial history of the Canadian Arctic began to change. After serving his country during World War I at the age of 59, Captain Comer made his final Artic voyage in July 1919, as second in command aboard the exploration and trading schooner Finback. Throughout his career in the north Captain Comer took great care in documenting Inuit culture and the natural world. He knew the European lifestyle would encroach upon their environment, way of life and traditions and he felt passionately about preserving their culture.  George Comer was proud of the contribution he made in documenting the lives of the Inuit peoples in the Canadian Arctic. In doing so he left behind a remarkable and significant legacy.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Do you think George Comer's childhood influenced his decision to go out to sea? Why or why not? If so, how?
  2. Do you think whaling was more important to Comer than his studies of the Inuit or vice versa? Do you think he felt they were both equally important? Why or why not?
  3. How do you think the Inuit felt about a foreigner taking notes on their lives? How would you feel if someone took notes about you and your family?