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Friday, March 6, 2009

On Ruling The Arctic Frontier, Or, Polly Want A Reindeer?

We have an epic tale of history to tell today, and it has everything you’d want in your standard-issue epic tale: the vast expanse of ocean, exploration on the shores of an unknown land, questions of race and slavery and opportunity and torture…and in the center of it all, a real larger-than-life sea captain (and his parrot) who some say was more powerful in Alaska than the Territorial Governor and Circuit Judges who were his frequent shipboard guests.

Such was his influence on the Revenue Cutter Service (later to become the United States Coast Guard) that two Coast Guard Cutters operating today are named with him in mind: the USCGC Bear, named after the most famous ship our sea captain commanded, and the USCGC Healy, the newest icebreaker in the Coast Guard’s fleet.

And with that, Gentle Reader, allow me to introduce you to Captain Mike “Hell-Roaring” Healy—and the Arctic which was his domain.

"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 any potentate of Europe has become. He stands for law and order in many thousand square miles 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.” When an innocent citizen of the Atlantic coast once asked on the Pacific who Mike Healy was, the answer came, “Why, he’s the United States. He holds in these parts a power of attorney for the whole country.”

--The New York Sun, January 28, 1894


Mike Healy, oddly enough, was born on a Georgia plantation in 1839. His father sent him (and his nine brothers and sisters, as they came to age) to Boston for their educations. Fate found them among the very first enrollees of Holy Cross College. Several of his brothers and sisters became notable persons in America’s Catholic history (one became a Bishop, one a Rector, three sisters became nuns, and his brother Patrick became President of Georgetown University during the 1870s and early 1880s), but such a path was not to be Mike’s.

He ran away from several academic placements in the United States and in Europe, eventually finding himself (at age 15) serving as a cabin boy on the clipper Jumna out of London (which he reports his parents helped to arrange, although this is disputed). In less than 10 years he had risen through the ranks to “…have been three times second officer and once first officer of a brig…", as he wrote in his 1863 application for a commission in the Revenue Cutter Service. Two of his brothers were now in a position to offer influential assistance, and by January 1865 he found himself a Third Lieutenant of the Service.

By 1868 he had been dispatched to his first Alaska assignment, and by 1877 he was in command of his first ship, the Revenue Cutter Chandler. In 1880 he began one of the first of the two most significant commands of his career aboard the Revenue Cutter Thomas Corwin.

At this point we need to step back and talk about exactly what it meant to be in command of a revenue cutter in late 19th Century Alaska…and to do that, we need to start with a bit of geography.

The Aleutian Islands form an arc roughly 1500 miles long from roughly Anchorage to roughly Vladivostok, separating the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. North of that is the site of the “land bridge” that once connected North America and Asia (near what is Wales, Alaska today), and north of that are the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Unalaska is a city located about halfway down the Aleutian chain, and Point Barrow is the northernmost point in the United States.

Within that space the revenue cutter commanders were the most visible official symbols of the United States. They were responsible for preventing smuggling, enforcing the laws among the whaling and sealing fleets and against liquor smuggling and distilling, and rescuing the various explorers, miners, traders, mappers, and other sailors that required their assistance.

Their responsibility also extended to maintaining positive relations with “the natives”—or putting down disquiet by force when relations weren’t so positive. Beyond that, before there were sheriffs and courts and jails the cutter commanders were the law on land as well. They also provided the visible face of the United States at public ceremonies.

The revenue cutters would transport the Territorial Governor on inspection tours, as well as the Circuit Judges who would occasionally visit the region (not to mention the mail), they would provide medical services to anyone they came across who might be in need; and they would often return to bases at Port Townsend, Washington or San Francisco bearing prisoners, or those that had been rescued—or both.

To survive in this environment, with that mission, requires an individual who can not only manage the administrative and diplomatic requirements of the job, but also a leader who can command the respect of a crew of fairly tough sailors…and Healy was more than up for the task.

It is reported that over the next decade his expertise in seamanship and Arctic operations grew to the point where he was involved in not just captaining a ship, but helping to design the ships that were subsequently built for Arctic service—and the way operations were conducted on board those ships.

Although much of the “Wild West” was becoming a lot more civilized than had been the case even 20 years before, in 1880 Alaska was still very much an untamed frontier territory. This meant that “frontier justice” was often the rule, and the ship’s Captain would often be required to take action.

In October of 1882 a whaling party near Angoon, Alaska experienced an accidental explosion of a “whale bomb”, killing a tribal shaman who was employed by the trading company conducting the whaling. Following the custom of the time, the two white members of the whaling party were taken hostage, along with the company’s equipment, and a demand was made for compensation (due to the importance of the decedent, the demand was for 200 blankets).

(A quick word on tribal traditions: it is likely that the large number of blankets were related to the Potlatch custom. In an interesting form of reverse capitalism practiced throughout the Pacific Northwest at the time, status is bestowed by an individual’s ability to give lavish gifts; and blankets might be turned into “button blankets”, which are worn at feasts and other ceremonial occasions.)

The Collector of Customs and the Commander of a US Navy ship, the Adams, responded by sending a force of Marines on a steamer owned by the Company, and coming in person aboard Healy’s ship the Corwin (the Adams being too large to navigate the waterways close to the village).

As soon as both vessels had arrived on the scene, the hostages and property were recovered. Healy’s report on the events describes what happened next:

“…as a punishment and as a guarantee for future good behavior, Captain Merriman [the Naval Captain] demanded twice the number of blankets demanded by the Indians, and threatened, in case of refusal, to destroy their canoes and villages. Refusing to pay the amount and remaining defiant, their canoes, to the number of forty, were taken and destroyed, after having selected those which belonged to the Indians who had remained friendly to the white men. Remaining unsubdued, their summer camp at this place was burned. Weighing anchor we steamed out of the lagoon, and at two o'clock hove to off the village of Hootsnoo and proceeded to shell the town. After shelling the village the marines were landed under cover of the guns, and they, setting fire to the houses, destroyed the entire village, with the exception of the friendly Indians."


Although there was a considerable outcry over the events of that day, it did not prevent Lieutenant Healy from becoming Captain Healy the next year.

The most famous ship in early Arctic history is undoubtedly the Revenue Cutter Bear. The ship’s first work was in the sealing trade and after it was rebuilt for the US Government as a rescue vessel, it helped recover the few survivors of the Greely Expedition. In 1886, after modifications, Captain Healy took command and it became the flagship of the Bering Sea Force. (Fun Fact: the Bear, beginning in 1933, also became Admiral Byrd’s command ship on his Antarctic missions.)

In 1890, more controversy over Healy’s “frontier justice” form of dealing with problems and his hard-drinking ways came in the form of an investigation of charges of “cruelty and intoxication”. The long and the short of the thing is that certain sailors of the merchant ship Estrella acted in a manner that, on the scene, was felt to be mutinous. Captain Healy, as the only law enforcement official available, was called upon to punish the offenders.

“…The three sailors were then taken on board the Bear and triced up. The master at arms of the Bear, who performed this interesting ceremony, explained his method on the stand. The arms of the sailors were bent behind their backs, with their hands manacled together. Ropes were then fastened to the handcuffs, passed through ring bolts overhead, and hauled up. Master at Arms Hughes testified that after he had hauled the men up as high as he thought they ought to go, Lieut. Buhner ordered him to trice them up higher. They were then hoisted up so high that their toes barely touched the deck and they could be spun around like tops.

After remaining in this position five to seven minutes each, suffering intense agony, they were taken down and seated with their backs against stanchions, around which their arms were stretched and fettered behind. They were kept in this position for four hours, and then triced up again, after which Commander Healy seems to have thought their crimes sufficiently punished…”

--The New York Times, March 12, 1890


Healy was exonerated of all charges. The Investigating Board placed no credence in the charge of drunkenness, and they felt:

“…that there were no courts or peace officers within reach, and that, therefore, the punishment of the crew as a last resort to suppress the mutiny was justifiable.”

--The New York Times, April 5, 1890


I have had to apologize on too many occasions for stories that are too long, so let’s take a break here and finish up in Part Two…but before we do, let’s recap where we’ve been.

Alaska in the second half of the 19th Century was all the frontier anybody could want, Captain Mike Healy had risen from a Georgia plantation background to become perhaps the most recognized man in the Arctic, commanding one of the Nation’s most historically renowned ships…and while he was enjoying his successes, there had already been questions about his methods—and his drinking.

In Part Two we tell the story of an amazing overland rescue, we learn about international reindeer transplantation, we examine Healy’s troubled life and times—and just as if we were Paul Harvey, we end with a “rest of the story” that makes everything you’ve heard so far become an even more unlikely narrative…and one that will end with a controversy unresolved to this day.

It’s an epic tale indeed—and for those of you who wonder “why hasn’t anyone ever made a movie out of this story?”…well, we’ll answer that question too.

4 comments:

mutleythedog said...

No one made the movie with white guys as heroes I guess? Shame aint it? Everyone should have heroes...

fake consultant said...

ummm...larry of arabia?

the ten commandments? (both versions)

the great escape?

patton?

used cars?

they're out there...you just have to look for them.

lady macleod said...

I love your blog. It is always interesting, and gives me things to say that make me sound so well informed. I love that.

fake consultant said...

you are too kind...and hopefully this evening we'll have part two finished.