Credit: Photo courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, reprinted in the Pacific Marine Environmental Library, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Whaling in icy waters, c. 1880s
The first documented Black presence in Alaska occurred as early as the 1840s and 50s when whalers arrived from New England. The famously diverse whaling crews included immigrants, free men of color, and the formerly enslaved. Whaling crews often had rocky relations with Alaska’s Indigenous peoples, who relied on whales for subsistence rather than commercial purposes. For the Black men who joined whaling crews in the latter half of the 19th century, the job was often among the best they could hope to find in an era rife with discrimination and racism.
When commercial whaling and seal harvest began to endanger the livelihood of Indigenous Alaskans, Michael A. Healy, a renowned Captain of the US Revenue Cutter Service (later known as the US Coast Guard), devised a plan to introduce Siberian reindeer to the region. This helped prevent the starvation of Alaska Native peoples due to commercial overfishing of their waters. Healy was also the first Black man to command a ship of the US government.