17 August, 2002
Yesterday I told you that the U.S. Coast Guard was originally known as the Revenue Cutter Service. One of the early captains in the Revenue Cutter Service was Michael Healy for whom the USCGC Healy is named. Mike Healy was born in Macon, Georgia in 1839, the son of an Irish plantation owner and his common-law wife of 20 years, one of his slaves. As the son of a slave, Mike Healy was, by law, a slave. His father could not free him, his seven brothers and sisters, or his mother. When his parents both died within six months of each other, six of his siblings entered the Catholic Church as priests or nuns. (Much later, the eldest brother was appointed the Bishop of Maine, and another brother became the first president of Georgetown University.) Although his siblings urged him to join the church, Mike Healy ran away to sea at the age of 15. After working on ships in the Mediterranean, he returned to the states and applied for a commission in the Marine Revenue Service. By the time he arrived in San Francisco, the California gold rush had faded, and the newest frontier was the Alaska Territory where the fur trade lured many despite the dangers.
When the U.S. Congress purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, they dispatched ships to survey the area and the Revenue Cutter Service not only carried out that job, but also became the only police force in the area. By then, Mike Healy was Captain of the Bear, a sailing ship in the Revenue Cutter Service. For many of the Alaskan natives, Mike Healy was their only contact with the outside world. The policymakers in Washington looked upon the natives as barbarians and wanted to "civilize" them. They essentially ignored the culture and traditions of the native people. Some feel that, because Mike Healy was an African American who chose to pass as white (he would not have been allowed in the Revenue Cutter Service if it was known he was African American), he had a special sympathy for the Alaskan people. He enforced the law, brought them supplies and medical help, and chased illegal traders. To this day, the elders in many Alaskan villages tell stories of Captain Mike Healy.
When other nations came to Alaska to hunt walrus, fur seals and whales, and when high powered rifles and harpoon guns made hunting much easier, it was Captain Healy who appealed to Washington to stop the hunting. By 1890, the fur seals and bowhead whales that sustained the native Alaskans were close to extinction. Famine swept through the coastal villages and whole villages were wiped out by starvation. When Washington's response was slow, Captain Healy transported reindeer from Siberia to Alaska where they flourished and provided food for the people until the seal, whale and walrus populations rebounded. By that time, Mike Healy was known from San Francisco to the Arctic Circle as the man who represented law and justice for the 30,000-mile coastline of Alaska. He had a reputation as a master navigator, unmatched in courage and daring. Congress rewarded him for saving hundreds of lives at sea.
At a time when a sailors' life was extremely difficult and dangerous (many sailors had to be kidnapped and brought on board, because no one would take the job), one of Captain Healy's jobs was to enforce maritime law at sea. On one occasion, he responded to a report of mutiny on another ship by ordering the sailors to be "triced" (tied up by their arms behind their backs). Three men on board Healy's ship reported that he had been drinking at the time of the order. When the report reached San Francisco, Captain Healy was denounced as cruel and arrogant. The combined efforts of the women of the temperance movement and the men of the sailors' union brought Captain Healy before a Board of Inquiry. The masters and owners of the northern whaling fleet as well as Alaskan natives, school children and teachers rallied around to support him. Captain Healy was exonerated, but those in Washington began to see Mike Healy as an embarrassment to the marine revenue service.
As new officers came into the service, they saw Captain Healy as a man stuck in the old ways of the service. Although he had stopped drinking for a period of time, Healy began drinking again, and he became more and more isolated from others around him. He was formally charged with misconduct by 25 officers of the Bering Sea Patrol, relieved of his command and ordered before a court martial. He was found guilty and suspended from duty for four years. When gold was discovered in Alaska, the Marine Revenue Service needed all officers and they offered Captain Healy another command at the age of 60. He was in poor health and his behavior became erratic while at sea. He was relieved of his duty and he died of a heart attack in 1904. Despite his personal struggles late in life, Captain Mike Healy remains a hero to the Alaskan natives, and he still retains a reputation as one of the most outstanding navigators of the treacherous waters of the Alaskan coast. When the Coast Guard's newest icebreaker was commissioned in 2000, it was named for Captain Michael Healy.
Note: Most of the information in today's journal comes from "The Odyssey of Captain Healy," a 1999 Waterfront Soundings Production.
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