African-American History Month: Capt. Michael “Hell Roaring Mike” Healy

Captain Michael A. Healy, the only African American to have a command or commission in any of the Coast Guard’s predecessor services, commanded the cutter Bear from 1887 to 1895.

Captain Michael A. Healy, the only African American to have a command or commission in any of the Coast Guard’s predecessor services, commanded the cutter Bear from 1887 to 1895.

African-American History Month is a time to celebrate the positive influences and traditions that African Americans have enriched our nation with.

In honor of African-American History Month we will highlight shipmate’s and honor the history of African Americans in the Last Frontier. This week we honor one of the most notable captains in Coast Guard history, Capt. Michael “Hell Roaring Mike” Healy.

Even to this day he is a legend in the Coast Guard; not just for being the first African-American to command a U.S. Government vessel, but for his involvement in enforcing federal law along Alaska’s 20,000 mile coastline as the captain of the Revenue Cutter Bear.

Healy was the United States Government in most of Alaska during his time as captain. In his twenty years of service between San Francisco and Point Barrow, he acted as: judge, doctor, and policemen to Alaskan natives, merchant seamen and whaling crews.


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The United States Revenue Cutter Bear on an Alaskan Patrol.  The Bear carried mail, Government agents and supplies, transported Federal prisoners, acted as a court, conducted investigations, undertook crime prevention and law enforcement,  conducted soundings to improve charts of Alaskan waters, and her surgeon furnished medical attention and surgery to natives, prospectors, missionaries, and whalers.  These duties are still part of today's Bering Sea Patrol.

The United States Revenue Cutter Bear on an Alaskan Patrol. The Bear carried mail, Government agents and supplies, transported Federal prisoners, acted as a court, conducted investigations, undertook crime prevention and law enforcement, conducted soundings to improve charts of Alaskan waters, and her surgeon furnished medical attention and surgery to natives, prospectors, missionaries, and whalers. These duties are still part of today’s Bering Sea Patrol.

Coast Guard Historian’s Office

Capt. Michael A. Healy, the only African American to have a command or commission in any of the Coast Guard’s predecessor services, commanded the cutter Bear from 1887 to 1895.   Healy retired as the third highest-ranking officer from the Revenue Cutter Service.

One of ten children born in Macon, Georgia, to an Irish immigrant and a slave of mixed blood, at the urging of his brother, the 15-year-old Healy was hired as a cabin boy abroad the clipper Jumna in 1855. He applied to and was accepted by the Revenue Cutter Service in March of 1865, was promoted to Second Lieutenant in June 1886, and to First Lieutenant in July 1870.

As First Lieutenant, Healy was ordered aboard the cutter Rush, to patrol Alaskan waters for the first time. He became known as a brilliant seaman and was considered by many the best sailor in the North. A feature article in the January 28, 1884 New York Sun stated: “Captain Mike Healy is a good deal more distinguished person in the waters of the far Northwest than any president of the United States or my potentate in Europe has yet become.”

Healy distinguished himself when he took command of the cutter Bear, considered by many the greatest polar ship of its time, in 1886. The ship was charged with “seizing any vessel found sealing in the Bering Sea.” By 1892, the Bear, Rush and Corwin had made so many seizures that tension developed between the United States and British merchants. Healy was also tasked with bringing medical and other aid to the Alaska Natives, making weather and ice reports, preparing navigation charts, rescuing distressed vessels, transporting special passengers and supplies, and fighting violators of federal laws. He served as deputy U.S. Marshal and represented federal law in Alaska for many years.

On one of Bear’s annual visits to King Island, Healy found a native population reduced to 100 people and begging for food. After ordering food and clothing, Healy worked with Dr. Sheldon Jackson of the Bureau of Education to import reindeer from the Siberian Chukchi, another Eskimo population. During the next ten years, Revenue cutters brought some 1,100 reindeer to Alaska . The Bureau of Education took charge of landing and distributing the deer, and missionary schools taught the natives to raise and care for the animals. By 1940, Alaska’s domesticated reindeer herds had risen to 500,000.

The Coast Guard named an icebreaker for Michael Healy, in acknowledgment of his inspiring commitment to the Service, including his invaluable assistance to Alaska Natives.

To learn more about the history of African-Americans in the Coast Guard, please visit the Coast Guard historian’s website.

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