Who Are These Alaskans?

Alaska's Black ‘King’ —Captain Michael Healy

Story by Roberta (Bobby) Dickerson-Murray

YES you heard right.

Alaska had a black Captain Healy‘King’ in her early years as a US territory. Captain Healy of the Revenue Cutter BEAR was the only law in the Alaska territory for many years. He was the man who represented law and justice for the 30,000-mile coastline of Alaska. He the made laws, judged lawbreakers and handed out the sentences for criminals. In this capacity he was as a king over Alaska. And he was considered (especially by the Natives) to be a great king! The New York Sun said that the powers given to Captain Healy for the patrols of the Alaskan coast and Bering Sea from a base at Unalaska 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.”

Michael Healy’s Early Years

Michael Healy was born in 1839 on a Georgia plantation. He was the fifth child of ten. There is a lot of dispute on the Internet about calling Captain Healy black because his skin was fair and he had blue eyes. The Healys never called themselves black, but Irish-Americans, and not a single, of their time, public comment about them being black has been found. The same dispute seems to be occurring over our new President Obama, and yet we say that Obama is our first black President even though he is half Irish.

Michael Healy’s mother, Mary Eliza, was purchased by his father, in 1829 as a domesticate slave and soon they fell in love. Mary Eliza’s father was a French-Spanish cotton baron and her mother a slave who hailed from Mali. Michael Healy took Mary Eliza as his common-law wife, as it was illegal for a white man to marry a black woman in Georgia. According to the law of the time, the “one drop” law, all of their children where considered black and slaves.

As black slaves were not allowed to be educated, Michael and Mary Eliza were 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 Jr. joined them in 1850, following the death of both of his parents within a few months of each other.

Michael Healy Goes To Sea and A King Was Born

In 1854 Michael attended school in France as there was some trouble his wild nature and his lack of desire to enter the priesthood, got him into at Holy Cross College.

But this did not suit him either, and in 1855 he ran away to sea bound for Calcutta on a British ship. This was the stimuli that brought Michael to life! He found his career path for the rest of his life, and he quickly rose through the ranks.

In 1864 Michael Healy, after achieving the rank of officer, applied for a commission in the US Revenue Marine Service. Remember that the Civil War was still happening and Michael had a secret about his heritage, that if known, he would have never been made an officer and definitely would not have been given a commission where he would have been giving orders and punishment, where needed, to white men.

Revenue Cutter BEARFor the next 13 years Michael served as a junior officer on a number of different cutters, making his first cruise to Alaska in 1868. He received his first command of the cutter Chandler in 1877. Michael was promoted to Captain in 1883 and in February of 1886 he took command of his famous cutter the BEAR where he held command, or could we say he held court, for the next 9 years.

Captain Healy was reputed to be swift and fair in establishing and dispensing federal law in this new territory. He was also known as daring in his many rescues of stranded whalers, sailors and miners and dispensed medical help whenever possible to white and Natives without discrimination. Anyone in Alaska who was in trouble or hungry could depend on Captain Healy for aid.

Captain Healy’s Great Idea

Captain Healy had a special compassion for the Natives of Alaska. He had this standing order among his men, “Never make a promise to a native you do not intend to keep to the letter”.

Healy saw that there was great hunger in the villages as a result of the over-hunted, diminishing population of fish, seals and whales which was a vital source of food and clothing for these people.

It was Captain Healy who appealed to Washington to stop the hunting as the high powered rifles and harpoon guns had made hunting much easier and horribly effective. By 1890, the fur seals and bow-head whales that sustained the native Alaskans were close to extinction. Famine swept through the coastal villages and whole villages were wiped out by starvation.

Captain Healy out huntingWhen Washington’s response was slow he remembered that while being second-in-command of the Thomas Corwin under Captain Hooper, Healy had visited the Siberian coast during their search for the lost exploration ship Jeanette. During that visit, he noticed that the Chukchi people were able to sustain themselves by raising reindeer. The lights went on and the “great reindeer experiment” was conceived. So from 1892 to 1895 he and Dr. Sheldon Jackson went to Russia and shipped aboard the BEAR, a large herd of reindeer and their handlers to Alaska to teach and distribute the animals to the tribes.

Today these reindeer are a main source of food and income for many Alaska Native tribes and even today Captain Healy and his (as they called it) “Healy's Fire Canoe”, the cutter BEAR, is held in high regard among the Alaska Natives. The elders in many Alaskan villages still tell stories to the next generation of Captain Mike Healy.

It should also be mentioned that originally the Yupik did not have European style names and that to this day a number of what outsiders call Eskimos have taken, or had passed down from their grandparents, the names Michael, Healy, or even King, or Captain. As Alaska was spared the ugliness of racism —other than Natives making righteous fun of “whiteguys with long frostbitten noses” it is also considered fun that Healy, Alaska —the site of Alaksa’s vitally needed ‘clean’ coal mine— is honored for someone without “copper colored” skin.

There’s A Storm A Brewing

The trouble began, some believe, because running away from his true identity Captain Healy took to heavy drinking. Soon he obtained the nickname of “Hell Roaring Mike”.

Captain Healy and Wife

Captain Healy and his wife, Mary Ann Roach— herself the daughter of Irish immigrants— lived when on land in San Francisco which had a strong movement of the Temperance Society operating there to try and reform the “drunken sailors”. Many recovering, alcoholic sailors sided with the Lemonade Lucy’s views and they went after Captain Healy with a vengeance.

During a time when many sailors were shanghaied for duty as the conditions were so harsh— especially in the Alaskan waters. Captain Healy and other of these Revenue Cutter Captains knew that they had to keep a strong rein on these men and maintained strict maritime laws.

Combine the drinking problems of “Hell Roaring Mike” and the need to maintain law and order onboard, and you have a volatile mixture.

Captain Healy and Officers



Captain Healy was court-martialed twice for his treatment of crew members, in 1890 and 1895-1896. In both cases the accusations also included that Captain Healy was drunk when he ordered the punishment.

In 1890 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. This first court martial came about because the crew of the whaling bark Northern Light refused duty in Port Clarence, on account of cruelty from the officers. Captain Healy ordered them all in irons. The First-Lieutenant of the Bear was sent aboard the Northern Light to execute the order. The crew was triced-up to the skids with arms behind their backs and toes just touching the deck for 15 minutes.

Captain Healy Onboard the BEAR

The accusations of the women of the Temperance Movement and the men of the Sailors’ Union brought Captain Healy before a Board of Inquiry.

But send in the troops! 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. This time Captain Healy prevailed and saved his commission.


Many of the Captains who hailed from well to do families thought Captain Healy was stuck in the old-school way of doing things and denounced him as cruel and arrogant. These new officers made a plan to take him down and strip away his dignity.

Although Captain Healy had stopped drinking for a period of time, he began drinking again, and became more and more isolated.

In 1895 he was formally charged with misconduct by 25 officers of the Bering Sea Patrol, relieved of his command and ordered before a court martial.

Captain Michael Healy was found guilty and suspended from duty for four years.

But Wait There’s More!

Here’s The Happy Ending

1) Many of Michael Sr. and Mary Eliza Healy’s children became famous:

James Augustine Healy became Bishop of Portland, Maine

Patrick Francis Healy became the rector then President of Georgetown University (1873-1881).

Michael Morris Healy, Jr. joined the United States Revenue Cutter Service, becoming a celebrated sea captain, the sole representative of the U.S. government in the vast reaches of Alaska.

Alexander Sherwood Healy also became a priest, director of the seminary in Troy, New York and rector of the Cathedral in Boston

Three sisters became nuns, one, Eliza, a Mother Superior.

Captain Healy and his dog

2) Although Captain Healy was stripped of his command for four years, during the 1900 Alaska gold rush there was a need for more cutters.

At that time Healy was brought back online and given command of the cutter McCulloch to be sent north once again. He spent his last two years of service on Alaskan waters aboard the cutter Thetis.

At the mandatory retirement age of 64 he retired on the 22nd of September, 1903.

Less than a year later on the 30th of August 1904 Captain Healy died. Captain Healy is buried in Colma, California. R.I.P.

US Revenue Cutter Service Logo3) In 1915 the Revenue Cutter Service became what we now know as the Coast Guard. These bastions of our nations coasts continue the good works and rescues of Captain Healy.

Many in our Coast Guard who know their history respect the men and the Captains of the famous Revenue Cutter Service.

School kids at Virgil Grissom Junior High School in Queens, New York discovered the story of Captain Healy and wrote many letters in a campaign and petitioned Congress to name a ship after Captain Michael Healy.

In response to the pleas of this campaign on November 15, 1997, the United States Coast Guard launched an icebreaker, the U.S.C.G.C. HEALY. Delivered to the U.S. Coast Guard and placed “In Commission, Special” on November 10, 1999. The HEALY was placed “In Commission, Active” on August 21st, 2000.

The HEALY is stationed out of Seattle Washington
(Read about the HEALY Icebreaker at the US Coast Guard web site http://www.uscg.mil/pacarea/cgcHealy)

The HEALY Ice breaker Ship

The HEALY is the United States’ newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker. It has been designed as a research ship and has accommodations for up to 50 scientists with over 4200 square feet of research labortory space. The HEALY is today, one of the important tools used to study the global changes in the Polar regions.

Captain Healy DVD4) 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.

(Editors note: Soon we will be offering you, our Dear Readers, a DVD of this movie that you can purchase for your own.)

In Parting

We would like to say “Thanks Michael for all you did and the thousands of lives you saved and changed. We hope that finally you can be at peace with who you are and your mixed race heritage. If you were alive today things would be different for you





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