On Ruling The Arctic Frontier, Part Two, Or, There's Stormier Weather Ahead

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
In order to complete today’s story we return to travelling the seas around the High Arctic...and in telling the first half of the story we were introduced to a sea captain and his parrot, we examined the destruction of a tribal village by United States Marines—and we learned that “tricing up” someone is not some kind of weird dating ritual. The story has already raised questions of race and culture; and as we move forward it’s going to encompass whaling, an incredible rescue, and more personal trials and tribulations—not to mention the Brewery Worker’s Union—and if all that wasn’t enough, we’ll even bring in a few thousand reindeer to round the whole thing out. So put on your caribou fur, clean up your sled runners--and let’s head north to Alaska, before the rush is on. Those of you who were with us last time will recall that we are telling an epic tale of 19th Century Alaska...and for those of you who were not, let’s bring you up to date: Captain Mike “Hell-Roaring” Healy, possibly the most influential man in the Arctic at the time, had risen from a Georgia plantation birth to become the commander of the most important ship in the Arctic, the Revenue Cutter Bear. From his Aleutian base at Unalaska, his influence ran from Anchorage to Point Barrow—and even to Siberia...and within that “sphere of influence”, his word was absolutely the way it would be. In many ways he was the United States in Alaska: his was the only (white man’s) law in a lawless Territory, he carried the mail, and he and his ship were often the first responder in emergencies. There had been controversy, however—and when Part One of this story ended Captain Healy had just survived an investigation into his methods—and his alleged heavy drinking--while in command. And with the catching up out of the way, let’s talk reindeer. Despite what you might think after hearing about Captain Healy’s involvement in the destruction of that tribal village in Part One of our story, he was regarded as a man who cared deeply about life in the tribal communities. And when American officials worried about those communities, the biggest fear was starvation. For those not aware, most of the time, most of the interior of Alaska is geographically inaccessible, and to make things worse, what little growing season there might be is too short to allow for any real agricultural production. That means much of what Alaska natives were eating was gathered from the sea...and since the foreign ships had come to the Arctic, those resources were getting a lot more scarce. (Much of the rest of the local diet was caribou, which is a migratory animal, which means the presence or absence of fresh meat would depend on the location of the herd.) In the late 1800s, when the whalers had moved from the Pacific to the Arctic as the whale catches began to decline farther south, the walrus and sea lions that were quite abundant in the far north became a natural choice for harvest. At the same time, hunters had begun to work the region with rifles, which was forcing the caribou herds farther inland. The obvious downside to this new activity was that it was becoming harder and harder for native subsistence hunters to gather enough food for their communities as these animal populations began to decline...which was something the two men who had been sent to Wales, Alaska on the Bear to establish a school had quickly noticed. (There are those who question whether the new hunting was as serious an issue for the natives as the new educators thought it was; suggesting instead that natural forces were causing the declines in population.) It was also well known that just a few miles across the Bering Strait, in Siberia, natives were practicing “reindeer capitalism” (the reindeer eat the omnipresent lichen, making them the perfect animal for herding in an Arctic environment). In 1891, on board the Bear, those two men, their boss (Dr. Sheldon Jackson) and Captain Healy came up with the idea of importing Siberian reindeer to Alaska so that Alaskan natives might have a go at reindeer herding themselves. By the next year, with no official permission from Washington, they brought over the first 16 reindeer. (It should also be noted that in addition to reducing perceived starvation, the other purpose of encouraging the local population to herd reindeer was to “civilize” the natives through assimilation with the newly arrived Americans; and developing an interest in capitalism was felt to be an effective way to advance that goal.) By 1900 there were more than 3300 reindeer in Alaska. The potential future? Sheldon Jackson himself wrote in 1895 that the 400,000 square miles of Alaska’s interior could support 9.2 million head of reindeer, which could employ as many as 287,500 herders. The actual outcome? More or less 125,000 deer were processed, either for food or clothing, from the 1890s to the 1920s; and more or less 10% of those were owned by the Lomen family of Nome, Alaska. In the 1930s, the herd grew to 650,000, but declined to as few as 25,000 in the 1950s. A renewed interest in herding began in the 1960s, and to this day there is an active reindeer industry in the State. At the same time Healy was sailing reindeer around the Bering Sea, he was sailing himself into further trouble back home. A variety of interest groups had been banding together to express their displeasure with Healy’s ways...including, oddly enough, the San Francisco branches of both the Brewery Worker’s Union and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; and the problem had been building since the investigation of Healy in 1890 had cleared him of all charges. When Healy had been accused of cruelty in that investigation, his response had been to say:
“We are empowered by Congress to suppress mutinies. We have no right to exercise magisterial functions. Our functions as such are exercised by policemen. We must suppress mutinies. A policeman does not sit in judgment on a man before he acts. We are not allowed to hold trials . . . If a mutiny occurred at San Francisco, to quell a mutiny or disturbance we would go and arrest the man, and turn him over to the police. But, up there, where there is no jail to bring men to, that is the last resort, to trice men up.”
And the Investigating Board, in that action, had supported him. But times were changing, and in 1895 25 officers of the various Bering Sea cutters jointly signed a new statement of charges against Healy. The crux of the matter again revolved around his behavior while drinking; among the charges were accusations that he discovered a burial at sea occurring on board his ship without his knowledge—and that he made his entrance to the somber occasion by announcing that “Aboard this ship I am the resurrection and the life.’’ In another incident Healy was accused of literally being “falling-down drunk” on duty: it was alleged that he stumbled right off the dock at Unalaska and into the water at an official social event. This and the other alleged incidents were investigated back in Washington, DC—and this time, the Investigating Board found him guilty of various forms of bad conduct, “Tyrannous and abusive conduct to inferiors”, and “Placing a vessel in a perilous position while in an intoxicated condition, thereby endangering the lives and property under his command.” It was recommended that he be dismissed from the Revenue Cutter Service, but the man who had the final word on the matter, Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle, gave this order instead:
“That Captain Michael A. Healy be dropped to the foot of the list of Captains of the Revenue Service, and that he retain that place hereafter; that he be suspended from rank and command and kept on waiting orders for a term of four years. and that he be publicly reprimanded by reading this order on board all vessels of the Revenue Cutter Service, by the commanding officer of each, at a muster of the commissioned officers, and admonished that if again found guilty of the excessive use of intoxicants during the term of this sentence or thereafter, whether afloat or on shore, he will be summarily dismissed the Service.”
Just as Healy had changed the way the Service operated in Arctic regions in years past, his conviction changed the way the Service operated from that day forward. The excessive use of alcohol was now seen as an offense that demanded serious punishment; and beyond that, the very types of punishment that were allowed had themselves changed as a result of the Healy case. In a sense, it was almost the end of the “Wild West”—in San Francisco and in Alaska—and as frontier times came to an end so did the tolerance for frontier justice. At this point, we interrupt the tale of Captain Healy to tell a quick story about the Bear. In 1897 eight whaling ships, with 265 crew aboard, were trapped in winter ice in and around Point Barrow...and the great concern was that they would starve if no relief effort could be effectively mounted. In November of 1897 the Bear was called upon to take up the task (despite the late date), departing from Port Townsend, Washington, and making its way to Cape Vancouver, Alaska under the command of Captain Francis Tuttle. (There had been an effort to bring Healy out of suspension for the mission, but that was not to be.) Because of the pack ice, the ship could go no farther north, so the Captain ordered a small party to set out overland roughly 1500 miles, hugging the coast, in order to get rescue supplies to Point Barrow. Remember the reindeer? Along the way, the Overland Expedition was able to locate and purchase from local herders almost 400 head, which were used to pull sleds with supplies...and which would eventually be used for food. It was now December 15th—which, in Alaska, means nearly 24 hours of darkness, temperatures that can easily plummet below minus 50 degrees F. (-45 C.), and an exceptionally difficult landscape...with no possibility of communications between the ship, the shore party, or those hoping to be rescued. There were other hazards as well, as reported by Lt. E.P. Bertholf, of the shore party:
“My interpreter, a half-breed Russian, had been listening to the conversation among the natives, and he informed me he drew from their talk that they realized I was unable to obtain other means of transportation in that out-of-the-way place, and thought it was a good time to force me to increase their pay, thus showing a marked similarity to the actions of some of their more enlightened white brethren in civilization. But there was no help for it, as I was obliged to have their teams, so I was forced to listen to their demands.”
The shore party travelled along the coast for about 100 days, finally reaching Point Barrow on March 26, 1898. The Bear reached the same point July 28 of that year, and by August the crews (having suffered no fatalities) were on their way out of the Chukchi Sea and heading south. At the end of his suspension in 1900 Healy returned to command aboard the Revenue Cutter McCulloch, which had fought in the Battle of Manila Bay—but a series of personal tragedies fell upon him, including the order to turn over command of the ship, leave the Arctic, and assume command of the Revenue Cutter Seminole, out of Boston. In the course of returning to Seattle in July of that year he apparently experienced a psychotic episode that caused junior officers aboard the ship to physically restrain him in his cabin. It is reported that at one point he attempted to cut his wrists with the crystal of his own watch. Healy was treated at Port Townsend...and, amazingly, in 1902 his case was reviewed; and as a result of that review he was returned to command aboard the Revenue Cutter Thetis. He was able to complete cruises to Alaska in 1902 and 1903, after which he finally retired. He died in San Francisco, August 30, 1904, of a heart attack. (A few words on the death of the Bear are in order at this point. The ship, as we mentioned, survived to be the flagship of Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions in the 1930s—and astonishingly enough, it even served in World War II on patrol in Greenland waters. In 1962, it had been renovated to become a restaurant and museum in Philadelphia, but it sank in waters off Boston as it was being towed there...proving that even a ship would “rather be here than in Philadelphia”.) Way back at the beginning of Part One I promised you a surprise ending that would make this story of Arctic history relevant to today’s times...so here it is: Captain Mike Healy was born a slave. His father, an Irish immigrant, had chosen to live with a woman who had been born a slave, and under the Georgia law in force at the time, not only would Mike and all her other children automatically be classified as slaves, their father was prohibited from freeing them. That’s why they were sent to Boston for their education. It is reported that the 10 children had varying skin tones, which meant James, who was darker, could not “pass” as white...but Mike could—and apparently he successfully did. He is today regarded as the first black commanding officer of a United States ship—although there are some who might consider a discussion of the “one-drop rule” to be appropriate before offering the good Captain that distinction. I promised to answer one other question as well: how did this story never become a movie? Dr. John Murphy provides that answer in his “Portrait of Captain Michael A. Healy”:
“In the late 1930s representatives of the film industry, planning to make a film on the life of the noted captain, wired to Healy’s daughter-in-law their wish to examine his four-volume diary. When they arrived it was in ashes. Apparently the daughter-in-law, reading the diary for the first time, learned that her husband’s grandmother had been a slave.”
So that’s the epic tale: born a slave in Georgia, but also born to the Arctic, Captain Mike Healy saved lives, changed the Revenue Cutter Service’s way of doing business—twice—and remains a controversial figure to this day, even as the ships that represent his name and his most famous command continue to ply the seas. And now, as Paul Harvey would have said: you know the rest...of the story.