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.
Nicknamed "Hell Roaring Mike", Healy has been identified as the first man of African-American descent to command a ship of the United States government; he identified as white Irish American during his lifetime. The author Jack London was inspired by his command of the USRC Bear. Commissioned in 1999, the USCGC Healy was named in his honor.
Common-law marriages such as that of Michael and Mary Healy were not infrequent, but they violated the prohibition against marriage between races, or miscegenation. Backed by their father's securing their educations and by his wealth, most of the children of the Healy family of Georgia, all but one of whom survived to adulthood, achieved noteworthy success as adults. In the twentieth century, the achievements of Michael, his sister Eliza, and two of his brothers have been claimed as notable firsts for people of African-American descent, although the siblings identified and were accepted as Irish American at the time, while not denying their multiracial background. Michael took a much different path from the rest of his siblings, who had careers in the Catholic Church.
The oldest son, James, born in 1830, was sent to Flushing, New York in 1837 where he attended a Quaker school. He was later transferred to another Quaker school in Burlington, New Jersey. Successively, James' younger brothers followed him in this path. The Quaker schools posed their own problems for the boys, as they were criticized for having a slaveholder father (the Quakers by then believed in abolition) and were discriminated against for being of Irish descent at a time of massive Irish immigration due to the famine.
While traveling, the senior Michael Healy met John Bernard Fitzpatrick, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Boston and learned of the new College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Its preparatory classes accepted children of grammar school age. In 1844, Healy transferred James to Holy Cross, joined by three of his younger brothers, aged 12, 10, and 8. Michael, who was then 6 years old, was enrolled at Holy Cross in 1849.
All four of the older brothers graduated from Holy Cross. Hugh decided to go into business in New York, but died from an infection at age 21 after a boating accident. The three older brothers entered the priesthood. James Augustine Healy was ordained in 1854. (In the 20th century, he was claimed as the first African-American priest in the Catholic Church. He later became the first African-American Catholic bishop in the United States when he was named the second bishop of the Diocese of Portland in 1875. Patrick Francis Healy became a Jesuit, became the first African-American to earn a PhD, at Saint-Sulpice Seminary in Paris, and was named a dean at Georgetown University in 1866. At the age of 39, in 1874, he assumed the presidency of what was then the largest Catholic college in the United States. Alexander Sherwood Healy was also ordained as a priest, and also obtained his doctoral degree at Saint-Sulpice. He became an expert in canon law, and served as director of the seminary in Troy, New York and rector of the cathedral in Boston. Sherwood, as he was known, used his musical talent to form the Boston Choral Union which helped raise funds for a new cathedral.[His career was cut short by an early death at age 39.
All three of Michael Healy's sisters attended parochial schools in Canada and ultimately entered orders. The two younger ones spent several years with their family in Boston, then decided they were called to religious life and each became a nun. Several years after taking her vows, Martha, the oldest, left her convent and moved to Boston. She married a man of Irish descent there. 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 she was appointed abbess or Mother Superior of the convent and school of Villa Barlow in St. Albans, Vermont. She is now known also as the first woman of African-American descent to reach this position.
Michael preferred a more adventuresome life than his older brothers. Before he was 12 years old, both parents had died. His oldest brother James became something of a surrogate parent, but he was unable to convince Michael to follow his career path. Unhappy and rebellious at Holy Cross, Michael at 15 went to a seminary in France. The following year he left the school and went to sea.
In 1864, Healy returned to his family in Boston. He applied for a commission in the Revenue Cutter Service and was accepted as a Third Lieutenant, his commission being signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
Under U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, during the administration of President Andrew Johnson, in 1867, the Alaska purchase took place. The huge territory, with 20,000 miles (32,000 km) of coastline, was initially called by many skeptics "Seward's Folly".
During the last two decades of the 19th century, Healy was essentially the federal government’s law enforcement presence in the vast territory. In his twenty years of service between San Francisco and Point Barrrow, he acted as: judge, doctor, and policemen to Alaskan natives, merchant seamen and whaling crews. The Native Americans throughout the vast regions of the north came to know and respect this skipper and called his ship "Healy's Fire Canoe".
Over a century later, Healy's Coast Guard successors conduct missions remarkably 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. Renowned naturalist John Muir made a number of voyages with Healy during the 1880s as part of an ambitious scientific program.
During visits to Siberia, across the Bering Sea from the Alaskan coast, Healy observed that the Chukchi people had domesticated reindeer and used them for food, travel, and clothing. With the reduction in the seal and whale populations from commercial fishing activities, and to 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. 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."
Healy retired in 1904 at the mandatory retirement age of 64. He died on August 30, 1904, in San Francisco of a heart attack. He was buried in Colma, California. 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.
BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY - Legacy
- Healy was the first African-American to command a ship of the United States government.
- Healy was an inspiration for Jack London's book, The Sea-Wolf. London has a scene in which Healy's revenue cutter, the USRC Bear, comes to the rescue at the end of the novel.
- The former site in Jones County, Georgia, of the Healy plantation is now called Healy Point and includes the Healy Point Country Club.
- James Michener used Healy as a historic figure in his novel Alaska.