Michael A. Healy

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Michael A. Healy
Michael A. Healy.jpg
Nickname(s) "Hell Roaring Mike"
Born (1839-09-22)September 22, 1839
Jones County, Georgia, U.S.
Died August 30, 1904(1904-08-30) (aged 64)
San Francisco, California, U.S.
Buried at Colma, California, U.S.[1]
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch U.S. Revenue Cutter Service
Years of service 1865–1903
Rank Captain (USRCS)[Note 1]
Commands held USRC Rush
USRC Corwin
USRC McCulloch
USRC Thetis

Michael Augustine Healy (September 22, 1839 – August 30, 1904) was an American captain in the United States Revenue Cutter Service (predecessor of the United States Coast Guard).[4]

Following U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward's Alaska purchase of the vast region in 1867, Healy patrolled the 20,000 miles (32,000 km) of Alaskan coastline for more than 20 years, earning great respect from the natives and seafarers alike. After commercial fishing had depleted the whale and seal populations, his assistance with introduction of Siberian reindeer helped prevent starvation among the native Alaskans.[5]

Nicknamed "Hell Roaring Mike," Healy was the fifth of 10 children of an Irish-born planter and his African-American slave, with whom he had a common-law marriage. The children were educated in the North. Healy was recognized in the late 20th century as the first man of African-American descent to command a ship of the United States government. The author Jack London was inspired by his command of the USRC Bear. Commissioned in 1999, the USCGC Healy was named in his honor.[5]

Early life and education[edit]

Healy was born near Macon, Georgia, in 1839, the fifth of ten children of Michael Morris Healy, an Irish immigrant planter, and Mary Eliza Smith, his common-law wife, a mixed-race African-American slave.[Note 2][4] The senior Healy was born in 1795 and emigrated from County Roscommon in 1818. By a land lottery and purchase, he eventually acquired 1,500 acres (6.1 km2) of land in Jones County, Georgia, across the Ocmulgee River from the market town of Macon. He became one of the more successful planters, and came to own 49 slaves for his labor-intensive cotton plantation.[6]

Among them was 16-year-old Mary Eliza Smith (or Clark), whom he took as his wife in 1829. Mary Eliza Healy has been described in various accounts as "slave" and "former slave," and as mulatto and black. Under the partus principle in slave law, the Healy children were born into slavery by being born to an enslaved mother. They could not be formally educated in Georgia, and their manumission would have required a separate act of legislative approval for each of them, then nearly impossible to obtain. Their father decided to send them North for education in order to secure their futures, as did some other wealthy white planters for their mixed-race children.[6]

The Healys' common-law marriage was not unusual but violated laws against inter-racial marriage. Healy's wealth and ambition provided for his children's education; most of the children of the Healy family of Georgia, of whom all but one survived to adulthood, achieved noteworthy success as adults. In the North, the Healy siblings identified as and were accepted as Irish Catholic. Since the late 20th century, their achievements have been also claimed as notable firsts for people of African-American descent.

The oldest son, James Augustine Healy, born in 1830, first went to a Quaker school in New York. His father later transferred him at age 14 to preparatory classes for the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where his three younger brothers joined him: Hugh aged 12, Patrick Francis Healy aged 10, and Alexander Sherwood Healy aged 8. Michael, then 6 years old, was not enrolled at Holy Cross until 1849.[6][7]

All four of the older brothers graduated from Holy Cross. Hugh went into business in New York, but died at age 21 after a boating accident. The three older brothers entered the priesthood. After attending seminaries in Montreal and Paris, James was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1854. In the late 20th century, he was claimed as the first African-American priest in the Catholic Church. Named the second bishop of the Diocese of Portland in 1875, he was the first Catholic bishop of African-American descent in the United States.[6][8] Patrick Healy became a Jesuit and was the first African American to earn a PhD at Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Paris. In 1866 he was named a dean at Georgetown University. At the age of 39, in 1874, he assumed the presidency of what was then the largest Catholic college in the United States.[9] Alexander Sherwood Healy was also ordained as a priest, obtaining his PhD at Saint-Sulpice. He became an expert in canon law, and served as director of the seminary in Troy, New York, and later as rector of the cathedral in Boston. Sherwood, as he was known, was musical and formed the Boston Choral Union. It helped raise funds for a new cathedral. He died early at age 39.[6][10]

All three of Healy's sisters attended parochial schools in Canada and ultimately entered Catholic orders. Several years after taking her vows, Martha, the oldest, left her convent and moved to Boston. There she married a man of Irish descent. Josephine joined the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph. Eliza Healy joined the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal, where she was known as Sister Mary Magdalen. After teaching in Quebec and Ontario, in 1903 Eliza Healy was appointed abbess or Mother Superior of the convent and school of Villa Barlow in St. Albans, Vermont. She is now known as the first woman of African-American descent to reach this position.[11]

In May 1850, the mother Mary Eliza Healy died, followed four months later by the elder Michael Healy, who died of cholera on August 29.[12] This left James Healy as the head of the family. He was unable to convince Michael to follow him into the priesthood. Unhappy and rebellious at Holy Cross, Michael was sent in 1854 to a seminary in France at age 15. The following year he left the school for England, where he signed on with the American East Indian clipper Jumna as a cabin boy in 1854. Later in his career on merchant vessels, he served as an officer.[4][6][13]


U.S. Revenue Cutter Service[edit]

In 1864, Healy returned to his family in Boston, where he applied for a commission in the Revenue Cutter Service. He was accepted as a third lieutenant on March 7, 1865, and his commission was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.[4][14] He was promoted to second lieutenant on June 6, 1866.[14][Note 3] Under U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, during the administration of President Andrew Johnson, the Alaska purchase was made on March 29, 1867. The huge territory, with 20,000 miles (32,000 km) of coastline, was initially referred to by many skeptics as "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Ice Box."

The Revenue Cutter Service became the principal government agency for transporting government officials, scientists, and doctors, as well as serving the principal law enforcement agency in the new territory.[16] Healy was assigned to the newly commissioned USRC Reliance when it sailed around Cape Horn and arrived at Sitka, Alaska, on November 24, 1868.[15] The following year he was transferred to USRC Lincoln in San Francisco, California.[15] While serving on Lincoln, he was promoted to first lieutenant on July 21, 1870.[14] On January 8, 1872, he received orders to report aboard USRC Active home-ported in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he became familiar with the masters of whaling ships. His experience in this period played an important part of his later career in Alaska.[15]

"Hell Roaring Mike"[edit]

Map showing Alaska's position relative to the 48 lower states

Healy returned to Alaskan waters aboard the newly built USRC Rush in 1875.[15] In 1880, by request of the captain of Corwin, he was transferred to serve as executive officer but the assignment did not last long. In August 1881 he assumed his first command on the Rush. Renowned naturalist John Muir made one voyage with Healy as First Officer of the Corwin during the summer of 1881 as part of an ambitious scientific program.[17][18] By 1882 Healy was given command of the USRC Thomas Corwin and was thoroughly familiar with the Bering Sea and Alaska.[15] In this command, he enforced liquor laws, protected seal and whale populations under treaty; delivered supplies, mail and medicines to remote villages; returned deserters to merchant ships, collected weather data, rendered medical assistance, conducted search and rescue, enforced federal laws, and accomplished exploration work.[19] He attained the rank of captain on March 3, 1883.[14]

At this point in his career, Healy earned a reputation as a person thoroughly familiar with Alaskan waters and as a commander who expected the most from his vessel and crew. He was at the same time gaining a reputation as a hard drinker, and most of his junior officers found him difficult.[20] At the same time, he was respected for his efforts to rescue vessels and crews in peril. Healy was often recognized for his humanitarian efforts, including being recognized by Congress for his life-saving work in the Arctic in 1885.[21] His reputation with the whalers was so well established that when the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Seaman's Union requested a board of inquiry to consider charges of drunkenness and cruelty against him, the whaler skippers quickly got the drunkenness charges dismissed. The cruelty charges stemmed from an incident aboard the whaler Estrella in 1889: Healy had a seaman "triced up" to restore order.[Note 4] He defended his actions as an effort to quell a mutiny, and the charge was eventually dismissed.[21]

In July 1889, Healy paid a courtesy call to the skipper of USRC Rush, Captain Leonard G. Shepard, in an intoxicated state, a serious breach of naval etiquette. Shortly thereafter, Shepard became the Chief of the Revenue Cutter Bureau and he wrote Healy warning him that if he could not control his drinking, he could face loss of command.[23] Healy replied stating that he "pledge[d] to you by all I hold most sacred that while I live never to touch intoxicants of any kind or description....One thing I will hate and that is to give up my command of the Bear. I love the ship, tho [it is] hard work."[23]

During the last two decades of the 19th century, Healy was essentially the federal government’s law enforcement presence in the vast territory.[4] In his twenty years of service between San Francisco and Point Barrow, he acted as judge, doctor, and policeman to Alaskan natives, merchant seamen and whaling crews. The Native Americans throughout the vast regions of the north came to know and respect him and called his ship "Healy's Fire Canoe."[1] During visits to Siberia, across the Bering Sea from the Alaskan coast, Healy observed that the Chukchi people had domesticated caribou (reindeer), and used them for food, travel, and clothing.[6] He had noted the reduction in the seal and whale populations in Alaska from commercial fishing activities. To compensate for this and aid in transportation, working with Reverend Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary and political leader in the territory, Healy helped introduce reindeer from Siberia to Alaska to provide food, clothing and other necessities for the Native peoples. This work was noted in the New York Sun newspaper in 1894.[6] Healy's compassion for the native population was expressed in many deeds and in his standing order: "Never make a promise to a native you do not intend to keep to the letter."[1]

Later life and death[edit]

Healy retired in 1903 at the mandatory retirement age of 64.[4] He died on August 30, 1904, in San Francisco, of a heart attack.[4] He was buried in Colma, California.[1] At the time, his African-American ancestry was not generally known; he was of majority-white ancestry and had identified with white Catholic and maritime communities.[24]

Personal life[edit]

In 1865, Healy married Mary Jane Roach, the daughter of Irish immigrants. She was a supportive wife who traveled with her husband. Despite 18 pregnancies, she bore only one child who survived, a son named Frederick who was born in 1870.[6][13]


Over a century later, Healy's Coast Guard successors conduct missions reminiscent of his groundbreaking work: protecting the natural resources of the region, suppressing illegal trade, resupply of remote outposts, enforcement of the law, and search and rescue. Even in the early days of Arctic operations, science was an important part of the mission. Healy was the first African-American to command a ship of the United States government.[24] Commissioned in 1999, the research icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20) was named in his honor.[5] To commemorate the entire family's achievements, the former site in Jones County of Healy's plantation is called Healy Point. The area is the location of the Healy Point Country Club.[6]


  1. ^ The officer rank structure of the Revenue Cutter Service differed from that of the U.S. Navy during the period that Healy served. The rank of an RCS captain was equivalent to a Navy lieutenant commander. After 1894 the rank of senior captain was authorized by Congress but Healy never held that rank; it was equivalent to a Navy commander.[2] In 1908 Congress authorized the rank and title of "Captain-Commandant" which was equivalent to a Navy captain.[3]
  2. ^ Some references say Mary Eliza Clark,[6] others say Mary Eliza Smith[4]
  3. ^ Little is known of Healy's assignments between the time he was commissioned in 1865 and his service aboard the Reliance in 1867. His official Coast Guard biography mentions that he served successfully on several unnamed cutters on the East Coast during the period 1865 to 1875.[4] Strobridge and Noble do not have information on the period 1865 to 1867, but do mention service on Reliance, Lincoln, and Active for the period of 1865 to 1875.[15]
  4. ^ Tricing up entailed handcuffing a seaman's hands behind his back, running a short length of line through the irons, and passing the line through a ringbolt high on the bulkhead or mast. The offending seaman would be hoisted up until his toes just touched the deck.[21] The term comes from the nautical term trice, meaning to haul up or secure.[22]
  1. ^ a b c d "Captain Michael A. Healy", Icebreaker Science Operations, U.S. Coast Guard
  2. ^ King, p 61
  3. ^ King, p 223
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Captain Michael A. Healy, USRCS", Personnel Biographies, U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office
  5. ^ a b c CGC Healy History, USCGC HEALY (WAGB-20), U.S. Coast Guard
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k O'Toole, James M.; "Passing Free", Boston College Magazine, Summer 2003, Boston College website
  7. ^ "Healy, Bishop James Augustine (1830-1900)", Online Encyclopedia, BlackPast.org website
  8. ^ "James Augustine Healy, the Children's Priest", The Registry, African-American Registry website
  9. ^ "Healy, Patrick (1834-1910)", Online Encyclopedia, BlackPast.org website
  10. ^ The Healy Brothers; a Thrilling, Shameful Story, Patheos, Elizabeth Scalia, February 2, 2011. Retrieved 23 March 2017.
  11. ^ Healy, Eliza [Sister Mary Magdalen] (1846–1918)", Black Past Online Encyclopedia, BlackPast.org website
  12. ^ Strobridge and Noble, p 44
  13. ^ a b Strobridge and Noble, p 45
  14. ^ a b c d Noble, p. 32
  15. ^ a b c d e f Strobridge and Noble, p 46
  16. ^ King, p 22
  17. ^ Strobridge and Noble, p 39
  18. ^ Strobridge and Noble, p 78
  19. ^ King, p 42
  20. ^ Strobridge and Noble, pp 46-48
  21. ^ a b c Strobridge and Noble, p 49
  22. ^ Cutler and Cutler, p 230
  23. ^ a b Strobridge and Noble, p 50
  24. ^ a b Strobridge and Noble, p 175
References cited

Additional reading[edit]