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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Michael Healy

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on March 2, 2012

A trail-blazing commander of Revenue Cutters in early Alaska.

 Captain Michael A. Healy, US Revenue Cutter Service, was an iconic individual in the early days of the Alaskan Territory.  Born near Macon, Georgia in 1839, to a white plantation owner and a black mother, his father sent him north to receive a formal education.  While three of his older brothers entered the priesthood, Michael Healy sought adventure and went to sea at age 16.  He quickly rose from cabin boy to officer in the merchant marine.  In 1864, he was commissioned as a Third Lieutenant in the Revenue Cutter Service, with his commission being signed by Abraham Lincoln.  Healy made his first trip to Alaska aboard the Revenue Cutter RUSH in 1868.  In 1880, he attained the rank of Captain and in 1882 was given command of the USRC THOMAS CORWIN, which was assigned to make regular patrols in Alaska waters.  The revenue cutters constituted the primary federal presence in frontier Alaska.  As the commanding officer, Healy served as marshal, judge, and doctor to the Indians, Inuits, miners, and mariners in the area.  A large man with a dominating personality, he became known as “Hell Roaring Mike” and his ship (he commanded three different ones on Alaska patrols) was often called “Healy’s Fire Canoe”.  In 1886, he took command of his most famous ship, the Revenue Cutter BEAR.  Working with a local minister, he brought reindeer from Siberia to Alaska, where the natives learned to use them for food, travel, and clothing.  He retired from active duty in 1904 and died later that year in San Francisco of a heart attack.  He was the first African-American to command a ship of the United States Government.  He served as an inspiration for Jack London’s book “The Sea Wolf”.  The icebreaking research vessel USCGC HEALY (WAGB 20) is named in his honor.  

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