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Coast Guard History in the High Arctic

The service’s century-and-a-half in Alaska and the Arctic

When U.S. Secretary of State William Seward purchased the Alaska Territory from the Russian imperial government in 1867, he added an area twice the size of Texas, and 30,000 miles of coastline, to the United States for the price of a mere $7.2 million – and yet it took a while for many to consider it a good deal. Among the few Americans who knew much about Alaska, many considered it a frozen wasteland, and the press generally excoriated the purchase, with nicknames such as “Seward’s Folly,” “Walrussia,” and “Seward’s Ice Box.”

On Oct. 18, 1867, when the Russian flag was lowered and the Stars and Stripes raised at Baranof Castle, on a hill overlooking the town of Sitka, the U.S. diplomats in attendance had been transported aboard the Revenue Cutter Lincoln, which had been charged with exploring and cataloging the resources of the new territory. At the time, Alaska had only one lighthouse – a seal oil lamp and reflector in the cupola of Baranof Castle – but Congress’ indifference to the new territory briefly snuffed it out before the U.S. Army took control, maintaining it until 1877. The U.S. Lighthouse Service added its own beacon light and 14 navigation buoys in Sitka Harbor in 1884.

A focus of early patrols for one of the Coast Guard’s predecessors, the Revenue Cutter Service, was the area around the Pribilof Islands, where 80 percent of the world’s northern fur seals returned each year to give birth and breed.

A focus of early patrols for one of the Coast Guard’s predecessors, the Revenue Cutter Service, was the area around the Pribilof Islands, where 80 percent of the world’s northern fur seals returned each year to give birth and breed. The seals’ thick pelts were highly prized and, with the departure of the Russian-American Company and its controlled harvests, the islands and the waters around them became overrun with hunters, many of them from Canada, who killed indiscriminately and soon threatened the seals with extinction. The secretary of the treasury, who regulated the killing of the animals, dispatched revenue cutters to enforce proper harvesting of the seals under U.S. law.

Alaskan patrol cutters, like the Lincoln before them, continued the tradition of what became known as the Bering Sea Patrol, and later the Alaskan Patrol. Cutter crews conducted scientific surveys of the territory’s ocean, flora, and fauna; delivered doctors, teachers, mail, and supplies to remote villages; enforced fish and game laws; policed the distribution of alcohol, ammunition, and firearms; and conducted occasional search and rescue (SAR) operations for stranded whalers, fishermen, or explorers – including the service’s first official case above the Arctic Circle: the 1880 search for the lost steamer Jeannette.

Nome Alaska Lifesaving Station

U.S. Life-Saving Station, Nome, Alaska. In January 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service combined with the Life-Saving Service to form the U.S. CoastGuard. Both agencies had many accomplishments, but the entity that contributed the most to the U.S. Coast Guard’s image as a lifesaver was the U.S. Life-Saving Service. Much of the service’s procedures in search and rescue can be traced to this small service. Library of Congress photo

For many years, revenue cutters were the only administrators of law and order in the untamed Alaskan outback. The Bering Sea Patrol established the tradition of the “Court Cruise,” transporting a judge, public defender, deputy U.S. marshal, and court clerk to conduct criminal trials in isolated communities. In some cases, if the case went against the defendant, the cutter would become a floating jail, transporting the convict to serve sentence at an on-shore facility elsewhere.


“Healy’s Fire Canoe”

In the late 19th century, two now-legendary names made their mark in this wild frontier. One belonged to a man: Capt. Michael A. Healy, whose nickname, applied with varying degrees of affection – but never to the captain’s face – was “Hell Roarin’ Mike.” The other name belonged to a ship, the Revenue Cutter Bear, perhaps the most famous ship in Coast Guard history.

Framed in oak, sheathed in Australian ironbark, the Bear, a former whaler, had already acquired renown as one of the North’s hardiest vessels when Healy took command of it in 1886. At the time, a great migration of fortune hunters was streaming into the northwest – hordes of whalers and sealers, prospectors and miners, and their suppliers, surged into and around remote settlements such as Kotzebue and Nome, with federal agencies struggling to establish government control and education for the booming communities.

In 1886, the ravaging of fur seals in the Bering Sea had reached a peak, as poachers, aware of a coming crackdown, launched a last push to harvest as many of the animals as possible. Healy was ordered to seize any vessel found sealing in the Bering Sea, but the patrol fleet, consisting of the cutters Bear, Rush, and Corwin, was severely tested by the vast area. Healy decided to act with harshness, to compensate for his disadvantage in numbers. In 1887, in his first patrol, he captured a dozen Canadian schooners and sent them to Sitka with prize crews. Tensions between the United States and Britain escalated to the brink of war in 1892 when the Corwin, under the command of Capt. Calvin L. Hooper, seized the British steamer Coquitlam in the act of receiving illegal seal pelts. The ship was bonded for $600,000, and the British raised a protest so strident that the matter was turned over to an international arbiter – but the issue wasn’t resolved until 1911, when a treaty prohibited seal harvesting by all but native subsistence hunters.

Meanwhile, the slaughter of the fur seals – along with the indiscriminate killing of other animals, such as bowhead whales and walrus – continued, despite the efforts of the Bering Sea Patrol. In his Arctic career, which had begun more than a decade earlier with the Jeannette search, Healy had witnessed the deadly effect these depredations were having on Alaska Native populations. Many had starved, while others traded away furs and ivory for illegally imported alcohol, often leaving themselves unprepared for winter.

Healy had noticed, in his travels, that the Chukchi people of Siberia kept domesticated reindeer (in Alaska, the term “reindeer” is used to note the difference between tame and wild caribou, though they are the same animal) and lived off the herds year-round as a dependable food supply. With Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson, general agent for education in Alaska, Healy hatched a plan to import reindeer from Siberia to Alaska and teach the North American natives how to herd and raise the animals. In the summer of 1892, Healy and the Bear made five trips to Russia and brought a total of 171 reindeer, along with five Siberian herders as instructors, to Port Clarence, just north of Nome, where Alaska’s first reindeer station was established. It was the first of many reindeer deliveries undertaken by revenue cutters until 1906, when the Russian government pulled out of the agreement.

Healy’s ambitious humanitarian initiative didn’t take, ultimately: The conversion of traditional subsistence hunters into herdsmen proved impracticable – and in the eyes of many today, wrongheaded. But nobody, least of all the natives Healy was trying to save from starvation, doubted his good intentions, and the program achieved two important results: First, it brought reindeer to Alaska, where – along with the wild caribou population – the animals would number a half-million by the beginning of World War II. Second, and more important, it established a tradition of trust and rapport among the Revenue Cutter Service – and later the Coast Guard – and Alaska Natives, whose enduring respect for the captain was reflected in their name for his ship: “Healy’s Fire Canoe.”

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...