One part Wild West lawman busting up murderous outlaw gangs in the most remote, inhospitable tendrils of the American wilderness, one part high-seas adventurer bravely charging his lone vessel into certain death to explore uncharted new lands, one part heroic rescue diver plunging into sub-zero waters in hopes of saving shipwrecked sailors, and one part humanitarian aid worker bringing vital life-giving supplies to underserved communities. As the only real representative of the United States government in the newly-purchased territory of Alaska in the 1880s, United States Cutter Revenue Service Captain “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy was a hardcore salty dog motherfucker who spent the better part of two decades single-handedly patrolling 20,000 miles of largely-unexplored coastline serving as sheriff, coast guardsman, firefighter, lead scientist, chief negotiator, aid worker, EMT and mail carrier. He’s the first man of African-American descent to ever command a vessel in the service of the United States government, a legend in the state of Alaska, and one of the most badass men in the history of the United States Coast Guard. A hard-drinking, hard-fighting sea dog who was a crack shot with a harpoon, had a gaze that could stare down polar bears, and worked a job that makes ice road trucking look like an afternoon at the go-kart track.
Oh, and if you whining complainers think you’re a little chilly now just because motherfucking Niagara Falls iced over this morning and most of the northeast is starting to look like a Day After Tomorrow post-apocalyptic nuclear ice age frozen-over wasteland nightmarescape so soul-crystallizingly frigid that Schwarzenegger’s character from Batman & Robin would double-middle-finger NOPE the fuck outta there, try navigating a goddamn three-masted wooden sailing ship through the Bering Sea in 1885 with only a wool coat and your own manly chest hair to keep you warm amid twenty-foot raging seas and negative-thirty-degree wind chills.
Born in Macon, Georgia in 1839, Mike Healy’s dad was an off-the-boat Irish immigrant who had fought alongside the Brits in the War of 1812 but decided he liked America enough he wanted to stick around for a while, and his mom was a black plantation slave who may or may not have been freed by the time Healy was born (there are conflicting stories on this). Whatever the case may be, Healy and his nine brothers and sisters were pretty much fucked in terms of opportunities in pre-Civil War rural Georgia, where children of African-American descent weren’t really allowed to go to school or have rights or basically do anything except perform a lot of backbreaking labor for free. Hoping to give their kids a chance to become something great, Mike’s mom and dad told their children to try and “pass for white,” sent them north of the Mason-Dixon, and enrolled them in Catholic school at Holy Cross College.
All nine of Mike’s brothers and sisters entered the religious service. One brother became the first black bishop in North America. One sister was Mother Superior at a convent. Another brother became president of Georgetown University. Another one was a priest at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
Mike ditched school, enlisted as a cabin boy on a British merchant ship, and spent the next decade sailing the East Indies in search of awesome high seas adventures that spanned the entire meridian of the globe. Because fuck yeah, that’s awesome.
Healy worked basically every single job you can possible work on a sailing ship over the next ten years. Eventually, with the country hurting for manpower thanks to the Civil War, Healy put in an application at the United States Revenue Cutter Service, the agency that would eventually become the Coast Guard. His commission as a Third Lieutenant in the USRCS was signed by Abe Lincoln in 1864, and he spent the next nine years working on various cutters operating out of Boston harbor. Ok, fine, whatever, but in 1875 some crazy orders came down and Healy was transferred to the recently-purchased-from-Russia middle-of-nowhere territory of Alaska, a frozen arctic wasteland nobody really knew that much about yet except for that it was fucking cold as shit there and they got seals and whales and gunslinging booze smugglers and the largest motherfuckin’ bears on earth and not much else in the way of things that aren’t going to horrifically, brutally kill you and mash your mangled corpse into a bloody red streak on the ice until the whole thing vaguely resembles a cherry snow-cone at the county fair.
It takes a certain kind of man to be even marginally successful in a posting like that, and, incidentally, that sort of man is also the sort of motherfucker who goes down in history with badass nicknames like “Hell Roaring Mike Healy.”
Captain Healy would command five cutters during the next twenty years, and he would be the first African-American to ever command a U.S. military or government vessel (although nobody made a big deal about it at the time because nobody realized he was half black). His most famous command would be the Bear, a 198-foot, 700-ton three-masted steamer known to pretty much everyone in Alaska as “Healy’s Fire Canoe.” At the helm of the flagship of the Bering Sea Force (an impressive-sounding squadron that pretty much included Bear and not much else), Healy and his crew of fifty were the only presence the United States government had in basically all of Alaska. They were responsible for a brain-crushingly immense swath of coastline – everything from Barrow to San Francisco – and their tasks included everything from hand-delivering mail to busting up bootlegging rings of people trying to run everything from guns to opium into the country. Shouting commanding orders to some of the saltiest sailors on earth in life or death situations was a daily occurrence for this hardcore captain, and his posting required him to face constant danger from every direction. One day he’d be rushing food supplies to native Inuit Indians while plowing through fifteen-foot waves and iceberg-infested waters, the next day a group of mutineers would take exception to his attempts to bring them to justice, and later that week he’d be sledding across pack ice into thirty mile-an-hour winds to bring medical supplies to whaling crews who’d been trapped in the ice. Constantly ready to fight brutal weather conditions, Healy had his crew disciplined, well-trained, and ready for anything, as they bravely – and routinely – patrolled some of the most dangerous waters on earth . This is Deadliest Catch shit, but back before the invention of Gore-Tex and space heaters, when the difference between saving lives and having your wooden ship smashed into toothpicks depended on the captain climbing forty feet of rigging in blistering sub-zero winds to adjust the rigging before your fucking ship gets a face-first of iceberg and decides to reenact DiCaprio’s final scene in Titanic.
We’re talking about navigating this:
P.S. dude I’m killing it with the 90s movies references today.
Alaska had just been purchased in 1867, so by the time Healy got there it had only been a territory for eight years. It was dangerous, lawless, and uncharted, and it was Healy’s job to bring peace, order, and, uh, charts to it, and to do it pretty much at his discretion. And he found some pretty awesome ways to prep Alaska to go from being just a big white space on the map with the word “Russia” erased and scribbled over in pencil with the word “SNOW,” and turn it into the 49th star on the American flag. For starters, he established way more of a presence than any single man should be able to do in a strip of land that is 20,000 goddamn miles long. He curbed smuggling. He arrested pirates, mutineers, and crooked traders. He brought vital supplies to remote whaling depots, refueling stations, and native Inuit tribal villages. He worked with John Muir to document wildlife and ecology of the region, establish friendly relations with the Inuit, and perform vital scientific research. He brought missionaries to preach to miners and locals. He helped dig vessels out of pack ice, fished overboard sailors out of the hypothermia-inducing waters of the Bering Sea, and raced injured fishermen to the hospital at a time when broken bones, influenza, or appendicitis were ultra-serious life-threatening situations. He even delivered the fucking mail, and he did it all without ever losing a ship to the perils of the Arctic. And by the time he was done, there were a lot of new charts and freshly-pioneered sub-zero sailing techniques courtesy of Captain Hell Roaring Mike Healy.
Oh yeah, and one time the Inuit were starting to starve to death because asshole poachers were over-hunting the whales and seals they depended on for survival, so fucking Hell Roaring Mike sailed his ass across the Sea to Russia, bought sixteen reindeer, hand-loaded them onto Bear, sailed back to the Inuit, and taught them the intricate details of how to breed reindeer for food and dairy products. Because sure why not right?
Hell Roaring Mike performed literally hundreds of life-saving rescue operations during his career with the Revenue Service, but his biggest operation came in 1888 when the Alaskan Whaling Fleet was smashed by a huge gale and was forced to take refuge in Point Barrow, which is the extreme furthest north point on Alaska (it’s the place where 30 Days of Night takes place). Just for reference, here’s this weekend’s weather forecast for the region:
Undeterred by the ball-freezingly excruciating what the fuck temperatures, Healy raced head-on into the danger like he gave zero fucks whatsoever about anything except saving lives. The storm hurled up towering waves and the winds were changing direction almost hourly, flipping even some of the larger ships over, smashing the smaller ones to driftwood, and forcing terrified crews into lifeboats or simply just dumping guys into the swirling black ocean. Healy raced from wreck to wreck, throwing lines and hauling in dudes, finally pulling 160 men out of the water and then somehow navigating through the storm in one piece. A few years later he’d be the guy that dispatched David Jarvis on the Overland Relief Expedition, and if you’re getting a boner for this story then that’s another one you should probably check out as well.
Hell Roaring Mike was basically the king of Alaska for twenty years, but everyone in San Francisco hated his ass because he drank way too much rum and kind-of-illegally used to discipline crewmen and criminals by handcuffing dudes and then stringing them up from the yardarm of his ship, and even in the 1890s people from San Francisco were weird about that sort of thing, and they complained like crazy all the time about him. Since it technically was sort of against the rules to brutalize your crew while drunkenly commanding a U.S. government ship, Healy was court-martialled and stripped of command in 1896. But, naturally, one year later some serious shit went down and a couple hundred stranded sailors needed desperate life-saving help, and wouldn’t you fucking know it the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter to President McKinley requesting Healy be reinstated to go save those guys’ asses (which he did, of course). He’d then be fully reinstated in the Revenue Service and retire in 1903 at the age of 64 as the third most senior Captain in the service.
A U.S. Coast Guard polar icebreaker cutter named after him still operates in the Bering Sea today.
"Capt. Mike Healy is a good deal more distinguished person in the waters of the far Northwest
than any president of the United States or any potentate of Europe has yet become.
He stands for law and order in many thousands of land and water,
and if you should ask in the Arctic Sea, 'Who is the greatest man in America?'
the instant answer would be 'Why, Mike Healy.' “
- New York Sun, January 1894
Helvarg, David. Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes. New York: St. Martins, 2013.
Noble, Dennis L. and Truman R. Strobridge. Captain “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy. Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida, 2009.
Reef, Catherine. African Americans in the Military. New York: Facts on File, 2010.
Strobridge, Truman R. and Dennis L. Noble. Alaska and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service 1867-1915. Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1999.