A “floating court” of sorts evolved when justice was meted out from the decks of revenue cutters beginning in the late 1880s. And Capt. Michael A. Healy, commander in the U.S. Revenue Marine (precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard), became the first revenue cutter commander to make regular patrols into the harsh Arctic waters. He was about the only source of law in a lawless land and transported criminals on board the cutter Bear from remote Alaska communities to Sitka for trial.
Healy began his 49-year sea career in 1854 at age 15 when he signed on as a cabin boy aboard the American East Indian Clipper Jumna bound for Asia.
The son of a Georgia plantation owner and an African slave from Mali, Healy quickly became an expert seaman. He requested and was granted a commission as a third lieutenant in the U. S. Revenue Marine from President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.
After serving successfully on several cutters in the East, Healy began his lengthy service in Alaska waters in 1875 as the second officer on the cutter Rush. He was given command of the revenue cutter Chandler in 1877. Promoted to captain in March 1883, he then was given command of the cutter Thomas Corwin in 1884. Finally, in 1886, he became commanding officer of the cutter Bear, taking her into Alaska waters for the first time. Here Healy remained until 1895.
He became a legend enforcing federal law along Alaska’s 20,000-mile coastline. In addition to befriending missionaries and scientists, he rescued whalers, Natives, shipwrecked sailors and destitute miners, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The captain often drove himself and his crew beyond the call of duty, as in 1888, when the Alaska whaling fleet was anchored behind the bar at Point Barrow to ride out a southwest gale. The wind veered to the north, and huge waves broke over the bar. Four ships broke apart and sank, tossing the ships’ crews into the icy waters. Healy and the Bear’s crew saved 160 whalers, Coast Guard records show.
Healy also assisted in serving the humanitarian needs and welfare of Native Alaskans through the introduction of reindeer to Alaska in order to replace the declining whale and seal populations, which were among the Natives’ primary food sources.
While serving as second-in-command of the Thomas Corwin as it searched for the lost exploration ship Jeanette along the Siberian coast in 1881, he noticed that the Chukchi people were able to sustain themselves by raising reindeer. In 1890, Healy used that knowledge to work with Dr. Sheldon Jackson and famous naturalist John Muir to import reindeer to Alaska.
At his own expense, Healy transported 16 reindeer from the Natives of the Siberian Coast to the Seward Peninsula. In 1892, another 171 reindeer were added to the herd and Teller Reindeer Station was established. More reindeer followed. These selfless acts and humanitarian efforts helped Natives continue their subsistence ways and probably saved many lives.
The captain was sidelined for a few years following a controversial court-martial conviction for “tricing” some of his crew, although the practice of lashing up deckhands with arms behind their backs and toes just touching the deck was legal punishment at the time.
Healy was given command of the cutter McCulloch in 1900 when the gold rush called for more cutters. He then spent his last two years of service on Alaska waters aboard the cutter Thetis and retired in 1904 at the mandatory retirement age of 64. He died the next year.
For his service to his country, the Alaska Native people and to their way of life, Healy was honored by Congress, the whaling industry, missionary groups and civic organizations on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. He earned the nickname “Hell Roaring Mike” for his forceful leadership and determination to succeed in all missions, whether military or humanitarian, and some say for his actions when under the influence of alcohol.