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Captain Michael Healy,
Revenue Cutter Service

by Murray Lundberg

      On April 23, 1790, United States Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton asked Congress to provide 10 boats for "securing the collection of the revenue." On August 4 that year, the construction of the boats was authorized, and the Revenue Cutter Service was formed. Thus began the service which, reorganized as the Coast Guard in 1915, has provided service to the nation under often harrowing conditions. The early cruises of Revenue Service cutters in Alaskan waters are legendary for the extent of the voyages, the conditions they were conducted under, and the bravery of the crews. The conditions often demanded that the men push themselves to their limits, and the captains of the cutters enforced those demands.

Revenue Cutter       The most famous of Alaska's Revenue Cutter Service captains is surely Michael Healy. Although he left the Service in disgrace, hindsight has restored the honour due to a man whose accomplishments helped shape the country's future.

      Michael Healy was not born to rank as was common in government service at the time. He was born in 1839, the fifth of ten children born to Georgia plantation owner Michael Morris Healy and his wife Mary Eliza (Clark), a former domestic slave. Mr. Healy had purchased her in 1829, and took her as his common-law wife despite the fact that such a marriage was illegal in Georgia, and that their children would be legally classified as slaves under what was commonly called the "one drop" law (in effect, if you had any black blood, you were considered black, and thus a slave). Unable to send their children to school in the South, the three oldest boys were sent to a Quaker school in Flushing, New York, and later to Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, where Michael joined them in 1850, following the death of both of his parents within a few months of each other.

      Most of the Healy children had fairly light skin coloring, and their black heritage seems to have not been widely known. All of the Healys identified themselves as being white, and not a single public comment on Michaels' heritage has been located. The article by James M. O'Toole (cited below), gives an excellent summary of the social view of mixed-blood children at the time.

      In 1854, Michael was sent to school in France in an attempt to curb his wild nature, but he soon ran away to sea, sailing for Calcutta on a British ship in July 1855. Here he found a career that suited his temperament, and he rose quickly through the ranks. In September 1863, he joined the Revenue Cutter Service, and with a great deal of help from lobbying efforts by family contacts, he was commissioned as third lieutenant in January 1865. A week later, he celebrated by marrying Mary Jane Roach.

      Healy was initially posted to the East Coast, but by the mid-1870s had arrived in California to work on the Arctic patrols. Based in San Francisco Bay, the cutters would go north each spring, and patrol the Alaskan coast and Bering Sea from a base at Unalaska. Their main duties in the early years were the protection of seals from poachers, who were decimating the herds, and offering assistance to the whaling fleet. In 1881, as second-in-command of the Thomas Corwin under Captain Hooper, Healy visited the Siberian coast during their search for the lost exploration ship Jeanette. During that visit, they noticed that the Chukchi people were able to sustain themselves by raising reindeer, and a few years later, Healy was able to use that knowledge to work with Dr. Sheldon Jackson to import reindeer to Alaska.

      In March 1883, Healy was promoted to captain, and in 1886 was given command of the largest cutter in Arctic service, the Bear. The Bear was one of the most colourful of the ships to operate in Northern waters - she was the prime symbol of American sovereignty in Alaska, and danger and excitement were as much a part of the crew's life as was hard work. The New York Sun said that the powers given to Captain Healy for these patrols made him "a good deal more distinguished person in the waters of the far Northwest than any President of the United States, or any potentate of Europe" (Quoted in Williams, Jerry; 3)

      Long voyages under brutal conditions, however, often caused tempers to flare on board the ships. Successful captains could not tolerate any breach of discipline when such slips could mean the loss of the ship with all hands. Harsh punishment was (arguably) necessary to control such sitations, and at the same time that Captain Healy was being praised in some quarters, he was being denounced for his brutality in others; the Coast Seamen's Journal (San Francisco) of February 21, 1894 included two incidents involving Healy in a report on "cases of cruelty perpetrated upon American seamen...":

BEAR, United States revenue steamer, Captain Healy. Three seamen, Holben, Daweritz and Frandsen, of the American bark Estrella charged that while discharging coal into the Bear in the harbor of Oonalaska in June, 1889, Captain Healy, without provocation, ordered them placed in irons and confined in the forepeak of the Bear. Then they were triced up with their hands behind them and their toes barely touching the deck. The punishment lasted fifteen minutes and the pain was most excruciating. They were then tied with their backs to the stanchions and their arms around them for forty-two hours. They were then put ashore and made to shift for themselves. The seamen accused both Captain Healy and Captain Avery of the Estrella of drunkeness and gross incapacity; united press condemnation. Healy exonerated by Navy Department.

BEAR 2, United States revenue steamer, Captain Healy. Crew of whaling bark Northern Light refused duty in Port Clarence, June 8, 1889, on account of cruelty from the officers. Captain Healy ordered them all in irons. First-Lieutenant of the Bear was sent aboard the Northern Light to execute the order. Crew triced-up to the skids with arms behind their backs and toes just touching the deck. One man's hands were lashed with hambroline (small cord), as the irons were too small for his wrists; line cut into the flesh three-eights of an inch. One man fainted from pain and the Bear's doctor had to bring him to. Men were triced up fifteen minutes, suffering untold pain.

      Captain Healy was court-martialed twice for his treatment of crew members, in 1890 and 1895-1896. Tricing, as described above, was still technically legal in the Revenue Cutter Service, but more damning were the charges that he had been drunk on both occasions. Captain Healy had acquired the nickname "Hell Roaring Mike" as a result of adventures in the saloons of San Francisco, and his superiors acknowledged the problem by allowing him to take his wife along on his voyages. Although he was acquited in the 1890 trial, 25 officers of the Revenue Cutter Service proferred charges against him in 1895, and it was clearly proved that Healy did indeed have a drinking problem. He was removed from command of the Bear and dropped to the bottom of the captain's list. In 1900, he was restored to service and given command of the McCulloch for her Alaskan patrols. In July, however, he snapped, and was confined to a hospital for a time. Although he returned to the sea, he seems to have never fully recovered, and a few months after his retirement in 1903, he died.

      The controversy surrounding Michael Healy's actions during his Alaskan service have hopefully been laid to rest now, with the naming of the Coast Guard's newest Polar-Class icebreaker in his honour. The 420-foot, 16,300-ton Healy joins 3 other icebreakers in the Coast Guard fleet. Her icebreaking capabilities are impressive, being designed to break through 4 1/2 feet of ice at 3 knots continuously, or 8 feet by backing up and ramming it! She will carry a crew of 75, and has accommodation and facililties for up to 50 scientists.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy       The Healy has been designed as a research ship, and some of the scientists who will eventually work on her have been consulted extensively throughout the design. Carrying over one million gallons of fuel, extended projects will be possible, with the ship's range being 30,000 nautical miles in clear water.

      Largely due to the determination of the Eliza and Michael Healy Sr. to see that their children got the education that they deserved, several of the Healy children left a record of service to the country. James became North America's first black Catholic bishop; Patrick became one of the founders and the first president of Georgetown University; all three girls became nuns, with one, Eliza, becoming head of her order; and Michael Jr. joined the upper ranks of a group that one Web site has called the Black Warriors. In 2000, The Alaska Humanities Forum awarded a grant to The Alaska Historical Society for the production of a film on the life of Michael Healy. Produced by noted West Coast film-maker Maria Brooks, The Odyssey of Captain Healy serves to inform a broad new audience about this exciting period of Alaska history, and the part that Healy and the Revenue Cutter Service played in it.

References & Further Reading:
(Check AbeBooks.com for copies of the out-of-print publications)

  • Cocke, Mary and Albert Cocke. "Hell Roaring Mike: A Fall From Grace in the Frozen North." Smithsonian 13 (February, 1983), pp. 119-137. Illus.
  • Cohen, Michael; Platzer, Michael. Black Men of the Sea (1978) pp. 114-119.
  • Healy, Michael A. Report of the Cruise of the Revenue Marine Steamer Corwin in the Arctic Ocean in the Year 1884. (Washington: GPO, 1889)
  • Murphy, John F. "Portrait of Captain Michael A. Healy." U.S. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association The Bulletin XLI (January-February, 1979), pp. 14-18. Illus.
  • Johnson, Paul H. "Portrait of Captain Michael A. Healy, Part II." U.S. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association The Bulletin XLI (March-April, 1979), pp. 22-23, 26-27.
  • "Portrait of Captain Michael A. Healy, Part III." U.S. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association The Bulletin XLI (May-June, 1979), pp. 26-30. Illus.
  • Noble, Dennis L. "Hell Roaring Mike." Chief II (March, 1976), pp. 11-13. Illus., bibliog.
  • Noble, Dennis L. and Truman R. Strobridge. "Early Cuttermen in Alaskan Waters." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 78, no. 3 (July, 1987), pp. 74-82. Illus., notes.
  • O’Toole, James M. "Racial Identity and the Case of Captain Michael Healy, USRCS." Prologue (NARA), Vol. 29, No. 3 (Fall 1997)
  • Ransom, Lieutenant Commander M. A., USCG. Sea of the Bear (1964)
  • Williams, Gerald O. - "Michael J. Healy and the Alaska Maritime Frontier, 1880-1902." Master of Arts Thesis. 2 volumes. (Eugene: University of Oregon, 1987). 538 pp., notes, bibliog.
  • Williams, Jerry. "Hell Roaring Mike Healy." Frame of Reference, Vol. III, No. 1 (August 1997), pp. 3-5, 12.

©2005 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.

I would like to especially thank the late George T. Harper of the Blacks in Alaska History Project, Inc. His assistance was crucial to getting this article started.