ECHO Editor, Elizabeth Pearch, asked for articles on Faith for this edition.
She specified that it should involve all categories falling within that topic, including faith in religion, self, subjects, objects, etc. This writer’s focus is on Alaska’s past, so a wide range of things and people came to mind. One of early Alaska’s most faithful people rose immediately to the forefront. It was not a man of the cloth, but one with a secret, a sailor who played an important role here during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Michael Augustine Healy was born Sept. 22, 1839, on a plantation in Jones County, Georgia.
He was the fifth of 10 children. His father, Michael Norris Healy, was an Irish immigrant who came to the United States in 1818 and was to own 1,500 acres where he became wealthy growing tobacco and cotton. He owned 49 slaves.
One of those slaves was Mary Eliza Smith, who at 16 was taken as his wife by her owner. Marriage between the races then was illegal. Under the law, a person “with a single drop of Negro blood” born of a slave was considered a slave. The Healy children were light-skinned and easily passed as white, but they were known for what they were by their neighbors. When the offspring were old enough to go to school, their father arranged for them to go north to be educated. They spent time in Canada and in Massachusetts.
An Irish Catholic, their father enrolled them in parochial schools. The five older sons entered Holy Cross College. Four were to graduate, and three became priests. James, the oldest, was to be elevated to Bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Maine. Hugh, number two son, became an attorney dedicated to serving the church. Patrick, the third son, joined the Society of Jesus, earned a Ph.D. degree, and became president of Georgetown University, then the largest Catholic university in the country. Sherwood, the fourth son, was a talented musician and formed the Boston Choral Union, raising funds to build a new cathedral. The three Healy daughters attended parochial schools in Montreal, Canada. The oldest girl, Martha, left the convent, moved to Boston to be near her brothers and married an Irish immigrant. Josephine joined the Hospitallers of St. Joseph. Eliza served as a teacher and became Mother Superior at the School of Villa of Barlow at St. Albans, Vermont.
The fifth son, Michael Augustine Healy, did not adapt well to the teachings of Holy Cross. At 15, he was transferred to a seminary in France. A year later, he left school and went across the Channel to England. There he signed on as a cabin boy on the American India clipper ship Jumna. He sailed before the mast, and later as a mate until 1864 when he returned to Boston at age 25 to be with his family.
Having gained valuable experience and holding responsible positions on merchant crews, Healy applied for a commission with the United States Revenue Cutter Service (USRC).
On his application, he wrote that his family had secured his position as a cabin boy, something that apparently was untrue but which was not to be used against him. Other discretions were to be.
Healy was commissioned as a third lieutenant in 1865, promoted the next year and became a first lieutenant in 1870. On Jan 8, 1972, he was ordered to report to the USRC Active base at Bedford, Massachusetts. It was there he met the officers of whaling ships which had plied the waters off Alaska. He peppered them with questions, learning all he could about navigating through ice floes, the weather, the people and ports of call.
His fascination with Alaska was rewarded in 1875 when he was assigned to the Cutter Rush.
That ship was to patrol the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea, and the Arctic Ocean as far east as Barrow, Alaska. When the weather threatened to freeze the waterways, the ship returned to winter quarters to await spring.
Six years after boarding the Rush, Healy was made her master. A year later, he became executive officer of the Thomas Corbin, which was involved in several rescues and searches including two vessels that had sunk. In the latter case, it was learned that one ship had taken aboard the crew of the other, only to be subsequently lost with all hands while still in Arctic waters.
A less admirable excursion for the Corbin with Healy aboard involved in the shelling of the village of Angoon in Southeast Alaska.
In October of 1882, as the Corbin was docked at Sitka while headed to winter quarters near San Francisco, she was pressed into service by Commander Edgar G. Merriman, captain of the USS Adams. A company of Marines, a Gatling gun and a three-inch canon were placed aboard the Corbin. The Adams was deemed too large to navigate the harbor at Angoon.
They were following up on a case where two white men and supplies had been taken there as hostages in a dispute arising over the accidental death of Til’tlein. The deceased was a Tlingit shaman who died when a whaling bomb exploded. Merriman gained the release of the hostages and demanded compensation of 400 blankets, double the compensation paid by his employers in response to Til’tlein’s death. When only 81 of the 400 blankets were produced, Merriman ordered the village destroyed. Six children died from smoke inhalation while the rest of the occupants were able to escape. Several others died during the winter, however, as a result of the shelling.
Another ship, one with a stronger hull to fend off the ice, was assigned the following year to join the Corbin. The USRC Bear had been built in Scotland, intended for sealing operations. She had both steam and sails and was constructed of six-inch planks to withstand ice, making her the first in a line of ice-breakers. Healy was her first commander when placed in service by the Revenue Cutter Service in 1884.
He married Mary Jane Roach, the daughter of immigrants from his father’s homeland, in 1865, while he was home-ported in Massachusetts. Of multiple pregnancies, she was to bear only one son who survived. She was to accompany her husband during the nine years he was to serve aboard the Bear.
Those nine years were filled with action. Healy was to gain high regard in Alaska. When a reporter for an Outside newspaper asked an Alaskan for his opinion of the skipper, the response was, “To us, he is the United States.”
Healy’s duties were widespread.
He was authorized to enforce U.S. laws, haul mail, conduct rescue operations, aid Alaska Natives, transport officials and prisoners, make explorations and other things as he felt necessary.
His nickname, “Hell-Roaring Mike” was well earned. He had a temper. Unfortunately, he did not refrain from pulling a cork and partaking of the contents over and beyond. He was twice court-martialed. Once was for appearing while intoxicated at a public affair in the presence of another Revenue Service captain. Threatened with the loss of his command, he promised to quit drinking. In the other case, he was acquitted of cruelty when charged with “tricing-up” a crew member. The man’s wrists were tied together behind his back, then raised until his feet were off the deck—a maneuver that was extremely painful and could break the arms. He said the punishment was necessary to prevent a potential mutiny.
Healy was involved in several noteworthy rescues. One was a search for survivors of an expedition that had gained widespread attention around the world. Two shiploads of explorers from the Franklin Expedition did not return from the Arctic at the end of the season. The following spring, the Bear was ordered to search for survivors or clues as to their fate. Nine men who barely made it through the winter were found and brought to safety.
Among his assignments was to transport between ports of call the governor and other federal officials. One of those officials was Reverend Dr. Sheldon Jackson, an influential Presbyterian minister who was named by the President as Special Agent for Education in Alaska. On one voyage, Healy suggested to Jackson that reindeer be imported from Siberia to supplement the diet of Alaska Natives and make their life easier. He had observed that Siberian Natives owned herds of the animals, using their skins and training them to pull sleds and wagons. Jackson agreed that it was a good idea, and posed to Washington that a project be created. The proposal was made official, and the Reindeer Project was born. It involved purchasing herds from Siberia, and later Norway, and employing herders to train Alaska Natives in husbandry. Apprentices then could earn the right to keep the offspring and create herds of their own.
Healy and the Bear were assigned the task of hauling the animals from Siberia to their destinations on the eastern shores of the Bering.
Their work still bears fruit in Native-owned herds in Northwest Alaska.
Healy did not make known his ancestry. The sailor who was “triced-up” had referred to his captain’s mother in an uncomplimentary and vulgar way but did not precede it with the racial epithet so often heard in conjunction with that phrase. It can be presumed he would have done so had the crew known of their captain’s mixed blood.
It no longer is Healy’s secret. Even the United States Coast Guard, the successor to the Revenue Cutter Service, proudly recognizes Healy as the first black captain of one of its ships. So, too, does the Catholic Church acknowledge that connection with the notable Healy siblings who rose to greatness in their faith.
Michael Augustine Healy retired at the mandatory age of 64. He died of a heart attack in San Francisco on August 30, 1904, but his name and his fame live on.