On July 8, 1850 the curtain rose on a stage in a massive log building on Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island. The audience—a group of 250-some anti-Brigham Young Mormons who’d recently settled on the sparsely populated island—must have stared in awe. Before them the man they hailed as their prophet, James Strang, sat on a throne rigged from a chair padded with moss and covered with a painted cloth. He was cloaked in a faux-ermine-trimmed red flannel cape, and a mural of a palace interior hung behind him. The theatric touches were courtesy of George Adams, Strang’s assistant and former small-time actor. With a flourish, Adams crowned Strang and declared him king of his Beaver Island Mormon kingdom. As the ceremony closed the crowd cheered, “Long live James, King of Zion!”
The scene was certainly one of the most bizarre in Great Lakes’ History—the makeshift royal trappings against the primitive island life, the voices echoing out over a frontier kingdom where the only other inhabitants were a handful of traders, fishermen and Indians. But quirky as it was, the six-year reign of the man born Jesse James Strang (later, he switched his first and middle names to become James Jesse) was more than a strange sideshow in history.
Strang can’t be explained simply as a fanatic with illusions of royalty. On one hand, he was a manipulator who stopped at almost nothing to fulfill his theocratic desires. On the other, he was a brilliant writer, debater, politician and thinker who served honorably during two terms in the Michigan Legislature. He opposed slavery, was fair to Native Americans and allowed women and, in at least one case, a black man to hold high offices in his church.
Even within Mormonism debate remains over Strang’s rightful place in history. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has written him off as an irritating charlatan. Yet 150 years after his death, some 300 Strangite Mormons still hail him as the true successor to Mormon leadership following the death of Mormon founder Joseph Smith in 1844. Roger Van Noord, author of Assassination of a Michigan King, which is regarded as the most authoritative account to date of Strang’s life, sums Strang up as, “a magnificent scoundrel.”
It’s true that Strang had to have brains and cunning to create the only monarchy ever established on United States soil, but his chosen place also helped him. He found in Northern Michigan a region ripe for exploitation. His kingdom’s island location was in the middle of a burgeoning Great Lakes economy, yet from Manistee to Marquette there weren’t more than 500 eligible voters. He quickly understood that if he could build a sizeable community that voted in unison, he could control local and regional government.
Strang needed a following. To develop one, he contested Brigham Young for the leadership of the Mormon Church after the death of its founder, Joseph Smith. That Strang was, for a period, Young’s chief rival is a remarkable achievement considering Strang had only been a Mormon for five months when the June 1844 assassination of Smith by non-Mormons threw his church into turmoil.
Strang, a 31-year-old attorney and a card-carrying Baptist who’d flirted with atheism, traveled from his home in Burlington, Wisconsin, to the Mormon headquarters of Nauvoo, Illinois, in the winter of 1844. He stayed several weeks—long enough to become a baptized Mormon and an ordained elder of the church. What motivated him to make such an abrupt conversion to Joseph Smith’s new and controversial religion? Strang could have been seeking solace. He and his wife, Mary, had recently lost their eldest daughter to a brief illness—a tragedy that had come on the heels of their move to Wisconsin from their home in Western, New York. Strang was acquainted with the religion through Mary’s Mormon relatives in Burlington. One of them, Aaron Smith, accompanied him to Nauvoo.
But Strang also could have been scheming to fulfill a lifelong desire for grand authority. Strang’s four biographers, Van Noord included, have all sought insight in a diary Strang kept as a young man. The entries (some of which were written in code and deciphered more than 100 years later by his grandson, Mark Strang) show a bright, frustrated mind longing to make the mark of a Caesar or a Napoleon. At one point, Strang confesses to daydreaming of a plot to marry Princess Victoria. “My mind has always been filled with dreams of royalty and power,” he wrote.
If indeed he saw the Mormon movement as a vehicle to gain power, the idea dovetailed with a more pragmatic one: land speculation. Strang’s lifelong best friend, Benjamin Perce, who was also Mary’s brother, was a land speculator in Burlington. Strang was his sometime partner and the pair could well have hoped to exploit the Mormon need to flee the persecution that surrounded them in Nauvoo. Indeed, when Strang left Nauvoo he’d obtained Joseph Smith’s blessings to research the idea of a Mormon settlement near Burlingtion.
Perhaps no one will ever completely understand what led Strang to Nauvoo, because within months of returning to Burlington he’d become the focus of intense controversy, making any accounts of him suspect. “Most of the contemporary material related to Strang was left by Strangites or virulent opponents—the credibility of either side had to be questioned,” says Van Noord.
Strang launched the controversy with a letter he claimed Joseph Smith wrote to him just prior to Smith’s assassination. In the letter, Smith predicted his martyrdom, appointed Strang the church’s new leader—at God’s direction—and instructed Strang to establish a Mormon colony near Burlington to be called Voree, meaning garden of peace. In addition to the letter, Strang claimed that approximately 15 minutes after Smith died an angel appeared to him and anointed his head with oil.
Armed with authority bestowed by both God and Joseph Smith, Strang plunged into the leadership void caused by Smith’s death. He trekked around the Great Lakes and Northeast persuading Mormons of his claim. In so doing, he clashed with Brigham Young, then head of the church’s twelve apostles and the man who quickly emerged as the favorite to succeed Smith.
If the Smith letter (now a part of a Yale University collection of Strang’s papers) was a fraud, it was a good one. Its Nauvoo, June 19 postmark is genuine and Joseph Smith probably did mail a letter to Strang shortly before his assassination—perhaps declining Strang’s proposal for a Wisconsin settlement. But Van Noord, for one, theorizes that Strang could well have saved the envelope (actually a second piece of paper) and then composed a new letter. “If you really think about the sequence of events you have to believe that he saw an article in a newspaper about Smith’s assassination then decided to forge the letter,” says Van Noord.
Strang soon bolstered the letter of appointment with the claim of a second angelic visit in September 1845. The divine manifestation reinforced Strang’s prophet status and bore remarkable similarity to Joseph Smith’s more renowned revelation that launched Mormonism. In Smith’s divination, the angel Moroni led Smith to gold plates buried in a hill near his home in Western, New York. Smith unearthed the plates and then translated their ancient writings—a task that resulted in the Book of Mormon.
In Strang’s revelation, an angel directed him to a site near Voree where three brass plates covered with cryptic symbols were unearthed. Strang then translated what he said were the ancient writings of one Rajah Manchou of Vorito who, among other things, prophesied Strang’s claim to the church. News of the plates brought plenty of burning criticism, but nonetheless, Strang’s ranks swelled.
Beyond his letter of appointment and divine revelations, Strang played up the security of Voree, Wisconsin, and its proximity to Nauvoo, Illinois. The predictability of Wisconsin countryside contrasted sharply with the rugged trip Young was leading to Salt Lake in the winter of 1846 to establish a Mormon community insulated from persecution. Moreover, Strang opposed polygamy—at least for the time being—and thus appealed to many Mormons upset by Young’s plural marriages. All of the above combined to win Strang his biggest coup—the support of Joseph Smith’s brother William. Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy, and his widow and civil wife, Emma, also may have backed him, at least tacitly for a brief period. By 1846 Strang’s popularity reached its zenith. A thousand or so believers joined him at Voree and a number of Mormon churches in the Midwest and East hailed him as Joseph Smith’s successor.
But Strang’s victories were soon stained. It wasn’t long before Voree was plagued with infighting, scandals and fraud charges—one was that the glow from oil Strang used for anointing was from phosphorous, not the Holy Spirit. One by one Strang excommunicated some of his closest supporters. When William Smith, Joseph’s brother, was ousted for speaking against him, Strang’s important liaison with the Smith family ended.
Meanwhile, Young led thousands to Salt Lake and by 1847 the desert community that Strang had declared a folly was becoming an unparalleled success. Although Strang was far from giving up his claim to the church, paranoia had set in. Like Brigham Young, Strang also needed to find a place to insulate his followers from criticism. He needed an island.
“I beheld a land amidst wide waters, and covered with large timber, with a deep broad bay on one side of it,” so went Strang’s revelation of the place where God told him to lead his followers. Whether or not the vision came from God, Strang had seen a place that fit its description on a trip east by ship in the summer of 1846. It was Beaver Island. The following summer, Strang, his wife Mary, and other Mormon families began settling the island where they survived by farming, fishing and cutting cordwood to sell to steamers. Over the next nine years, the population climbed to about 900 people.
Secreted away on his Lake Michigan isle, Strang freely led his flock into new and even more creative theological territory. First was the presentation of a new set of plates (origin unexplained) that Strang deciphered and compiled into a Book of the Law of the Lord that governed island life. The plates also included the revelation that Strang should be crowned king of his people—a prophetic directive that echoed Joseph Smith’s decision to make himself king of a secret Kingdom of God on earth shortly before his death.
Strang also may have copied Smith when he made another momentous decision—to pursue polygamy. Or he may simply have fallen in love with an attractive young woman. Whatever his motives, on July 13, 1849, Strang secretly married the first of his four polygamous wives, 19-year-old Elvira Field. As Strang was still denouncing polygamy publicly, Field dressed in men’s clothing and assumed the name Charlie Douglass to accompany him on a trip to the East. Later, back on Beaver Island, Strang gradually introduced Field as a woman, freely appearing publicly with her. But it wasn’t until the birth of his first child by Field that Strang formally sanctioned polygamy.
Strang went on to marry Betsy McNutt, and cousins Sarah and Phoebe Wright. Meanwhile, his civil wife Mary Strang took their three children and moved back to Wisconsin in 1851. Strang’s polygamous wives bore him nine more children—four of them posthumously. (The four newest Mrs. Strangs were pregnant when they fled the island after their husband’s assassination.)
Most of Strang’s colony took his monarchy and plural marriages in stride, but some objected. The price for disagreeing became exile from the church and the island—while the king confiscated critics’ property. Disaffected Mormons found they had plenty of allies in the Straits area, where non-Mormons (or Gentiles, as the Mormons called them) despised Strang. Anti-Strang feelings were fueled by competition over Beaver Island’s rich fishing grounds and abundant cordwood to sell to steamers. From the time the first Mormon families arrived on shore, they were harassed by the handful of Gentile fishermen and traders who lived on Beaver.
It wasn’t long before Mormon hatred spread to Mackinac Island where Strang’s colony was resented for its encroachment into fishing grounds. Indeed, the stage was set for a colorful feud—a renegade kingdom versus the rowdy, hard-living Irish and French-Canadian population of Mackinac Island. “The Irish never needed much of an excuse for a fight,” says Northern Michigan historian Steve Harold. “The fishing grounds were a ready excuse.” Strang quickly became a marked man, and once a posse from Mackinac Island chased him around the Beaver Archipelago for days.
Strang further goaded Gentiles with inflammatory rhetoric in his newspaper, the Northern Islander. And when a Gentile trader on Beaver Island was accidentally killed during a Mormon-Gentile feud, the Mormons cursed and threw stones on his grave each time they passed. Strang’s Doctrine of Consecration stirred up anti-Mormon sentiment even more. In religious terms, the doctrine explained how Mormons, as God’s chosen people, would inherit the Earth. In reality it translated into permission to steal everything from fishing nets to boats—a habit that earned the Mormons repute as Great Lakes pirates. While historians feel that Strang’s colony became the scapegoat for anything that was lost, stolen or destroyed around the Great Lakes, the Mormons clearly were guilty in some cases. And consider what the loss of a fishing net meant back in the 1850s when it was a basic tool of survival. “It could be fatal,” Harold says.
All, in all, however, Strang exacted his greatest retribution on non-Mormon neighbors through politics. Strang had under his control the largest voting block in the vast but nearly empty Michilimackinac County (stretching from southern Manistee County through Marquette in the Upper Peninsula). As such, he also had the power to decide elections. It wasn’t long before Strangites held all of their township offices and a number of county ones. When newly elected Mormon authorities began enforcing laws that curbed selling liquor to Indians, they caused an uproar in the straits where peddling firewater to Native Americans was tolerated.
Pleas from the straits’ Gentile community eventually reached all the way to Washington, D.C. On April 30, 1851, President Millard Fillmore sent the Naval ship the Michigan to arrest Strang and a group of his followers and bring them to Detroit, where they were indicted on charges of cutting timber on federal land, counterfeiting and obstruction of U.S. mail. Given that Strang’s followers actually purchased only about 1,000 of the 37,000-acre island and squatted on the rest, the first charge was obviously true. Evidence for the second was mostly hearsay, and the third—according to Van Noord’s meticulous sequencing of evidence—appears trumped up.
Eventually, the Mormons were all acquitted. Mostly, thanks to Strang’s well-crafted testimony, which convinced the jury that the prosecution’s real intent was to quell religious freedom. Strang also had the cunning to hire a brilliant defense attorney.
Strang’s Detroit victory only emboldened him. In the legislative election of 1852, his 165 Mormon votes were enough to win a four-way race and elect Strang state representative for the Newaygo District—a political bonanza that encompassed a quarter of the state and the entire Northern half of the Lower Peninsula.
Strang went on to serve admirably, earning himself grudging, even glowing, respect from all over the state. Among his accomplishments that session was authoring four laws that reorganized Northern Michigan’s political boundaries to Mormon advantage by dismantling Michilimackinac’s huge territory and organizing Emmet County to include Northwest Lower Peninsula and Beaver Archipelago. St. James was the new county’s seat.
But if Strang was gaining popularity off Beaver Island, back at the straits his new political clout was compounding tensions. On a July day in 1853, in what is now the city of Charlevoix, the emotions exploded into gunfire.
On that day, 30 scruffy, armed, Mormon-hating men faced off on the beach at the mouth of the Pine River (the channel that flows from what is now called Round Lake into Lake Michigan) against half as many Mormons gathered around the fishing boats they’d rowed from Beaver Island. The Mormons had come to summon three men to jury duty in St. James.
But the Gentiles were suspicious. Some were ex-Beaver Islanders who’d fled the Mormon takeover, then had their property confiscated by Strang’s church. Others were disaffected Mormons—including two of the three men the Mormons were summoning for jury duty. As tempers flared a gun went off—later both sides claimed the other fired first—and a gun battle ensued during which the Mormons fled in their fishing boats chased by the Gentiles. As the Pine River party closed in, the Mormons spotted a ship en route to Chicago. Hailing it down, they were pulled on board to safety. In the end, six Mormons and one Gentile were wounded. There were no fatalities.
Strang’s men might have lost the battle of Pine River, but that spring the Mormons won the war. Finding that the Gentiles abandoned Pine River (fearing arrest for their part in the battle), Mormon families moved in. Strang won his seat again in the election of 1855, when he beat the young Traverse City lumberman A. Tracy Lay. That term, the Mackinac representative persuaded the legislature to cut the Beaver Archipelago out of Emmet, include it in a new Manitou County, and thus separate the Mormons from mainland politics. But again, Strang ended with the advantage. The move virtually handed the Mormons their own court system, an unintended consequence that effectively shielded them from state interference. In addition, the handful of Mormon settlers at Pine River flexed their political muscle and filled positions in the new but virtually empty mainland township of Charlevoix—where they also christened what is now Lake Charlevoix, Lake Mormon and named an island in the lake Holy Island.
Besides Beaver Island and the Charlevoix settlement, a handful of Mormon families had put down roots on Drummond Island, to the east of Mackinac. Perhaps Strang was feeling kingly indeed. But there was trouble in the realm, trouble brought on by Strang exerting his authority where no wise man ought to tread. Though polygamy and thievery passed muster with Strang’s followers, when he attempted to dictate women’s fashion, his kingdom came undone.
In the summer of 1855 Strang ordered his female followers to adopt a costume of calico pants gathered at the ankle and worn under a knee-length dress. Strang’s later defenders have argued this reflected his progressive leanings on women’s rights (women’s rights reformer Amelia Bloomer introduced “the bloomer” as a liberating fashion in 1851). However, this was still a shocking recommendation to his followers, likely as unheard of as the prospect of going naked in public today, Harold says. During these Victorian times, women’s bodies were nearly completely concealed by their clothing and the revelation of so much as an ankle was scandalous. A handful of prominent island women rebelled, among them Ruth Ann Bedford, the daughter of George Miller, one of Strang’s trusted followers.
But Strang refused to back down, even when friends were involved. In retaliation for their defiance, the church harassed the women’s families—a tactic that angered Ruth Ann’s husband, Thomas Bedford. When Bedford grew so bold the following spring as to gossip openly about the king, Strang’s strongmen whipped him. (The Mormon explanation for the whipping was that Bedford was taken in the act of adultery.) From that evening on, Bedford vowed to kill Strang. He tried that night, April 3, but couldn’t get a shot.
Eventually, Bedford was joined in his campaign for revenge by Alexander Wentworth, H.D. MacCullough, Franklin Johnson, and a Dr. Atkyn. Just months before, MacCullough and Johnson had been elite members of Strang’s church, but they’d recently suffered retributions from Strang, for among other reasons, their wives’ refusal to wear bloomers. Besides supporting his wife, Wentworth had his own vendetta against Strang. Strang had apparently competed with him for Phoebe’s hand before she married Wentworth—a rivalry that occurred when Phoebe was 15. And Dr. Atkyn had his own story. While he posed on the island as an itinerant photographer, Atkyn may actually have been there to spy for Michigan Governor Kinsley Bingham.
As the months rolled on, it’s evident from Van Noord’s account, that MacCullough’s, Johnson’s and Atkyns’ roles in the murder were to enlist government sympathy for an assassination of Strang. Bedford and Wentworth, meanwhile, would do the killing. In May they tried again to get a shot at Strang, but again couldn’t find an opportunity. On June 2 the Michigan steamed into St. James. While the commander, Charles McBlair, took affidavits from acCullough, Johnson and other disaffected Mormons (among their charges were theft and padding the census count to cover voter fraud and to receive more government money for schools) to send to Governor Bingham, Bedford tried once again to get a shot at Strang, but failed.
Two weeks later, the Michigan returned to St. James. When Strang walked to the ship for a meeting called by McBlair, Bedford and Wentworth were waiting. In public view—and obviously not worried about government retribution—they shot Strang twice from behind, then again as he lay on the ground. Finally, Bedford pistol-whipped him. The assassins fled onto the Michigan where they were taken to Mackinac Island and set free after a short hearing. The government’s investigation into the Michigan’s role in the assassination was purely cursory. Strang lived three more weeks. At the end of June, as news arrived that mobs were gathering around the straits to storm Beaver Island, he was taken to his parents’ home in Wisconsin, near Voree, where he died July 9, 1856.
Meanwhile, the angry Gentiles invaded Beaver Island and drove the Mormon families off with guns and threats. The Mormons left behind property, homes, businesses and crops in the ground—none of which they would ever get back. As the steamer carrying the last of the Mormons puffed out of the harbor, King James’ kingdom dissolved into memory.