Friday, February 7, 2014

John Healy: An Irony In American and Canadian History

Healy and Wilson Trading Post, Dyea, AK

Johnny Healy is an interesting man in Skagway history; he said she'd never amount to anything. He also has an interesting history with Canada and the Mounted Police.

A whiskey trader, Indian fighter, entrepreneur, he came to Dyea, AK, in 1885 and started a trading post at the foot of the Chilkoot Trail--the famous torturous path twisting up though the steep Coastal Mountains. A trickle of gold prospectors had been using the trail, headed into Canada's Far North and her promising gold strikes. Healy saw an opportunity to cash in with a strategically placed trading post. So he and pal Wilson built Healy and Wilson. A year later Captain William Moore and son Ben arrived, setting up their homestead next door in unoccupied Skagua, 1886.  

"A waste of time and resources," Healy told them. "Nothing will come from such dark and windy desolation." The future, he said, which any nincompoop could tell you, lay in Dyea and the Chilkoot Trail. We all know just how wrong he was. Skagway is a pretty little town that sees close to a million visitors each summer while Dyea’s ruins lie buried by a hundred-year-old forest. What most don't know, though, is that Johnny J. Healy was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Canada's Mounties in 1873/74. Yes, true.

Fort Whoop Up, Canada West
the flag is not America's stars and stripes
Healy was a rather notorious whiskey trader in Canadian history, working out of Montana. He ran the nefarious Fort Whoop Up in what is now Alberta, Canada, near present day Lethbridge. His whisky—watered down with red pepper, ink, Jamaican ginger, tobacco, and black strap molasses—was decimating the Blackfoot. To establish law and order and protect the First Nations, the Canadian government formulated the now famous Northwest Mounted Police in 1873 to drive Healy and the other traders back across the border. Their primary target, Fort Whoop Up—and Healy.

When the Mounties arrived after a six-month trek in 1874, their collective resolve sharpened by an epic journey of deprivation and hardship, they expected one heck of a fight. All they got was Dave Akers—a fur trapper the fleeing Healy had left in charge.

“Been expecting you,” said Akers, “supper’s on.”

The irony is that years later Healy, after having made his way to Dyea, partnered in 1892 with big money in Chicago to create the North America Transportation and Trading Company in Canada's Yukon. But it was becoming a dangerous place up there, more and more gold being found by the steady trickle of American prospectors. He, among others, began writing Ottawa, asking for police protection from this growing element of American lawlessness. One more time, in 1895, the Mounties showed up. This time not to run him out, but to protect him.

The ultimate irony is not that Healy once ran from the Mounties and then begged their protection, but that he ultimately took credit for the relatively peaceful settlement of Canada West. "The Mounties got on well with the Indians," he boasted, "because I already whooped 'em." 

If anyone's interested in more about this interesting and arrogant man, his autobiography is now available, Life and Death on the Upper Missouri: The Frontier Sketches  by Johnny  Healy, edited by Ken Robison.

Reminder: My book, Skagway: It's All About the Gold, will be released this spring. See information on the right sidebar for ordering.