The King of Beaver Island

King James Jesse Strang’s castle on Beaver Island off the northeast coast of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

Long after the American Revolution threw off rule by faraway British kings, the young state of Michigan played host to a new monarch, James Jesse Strang, the King of Beaver Island.

Strang was born in New York State in 1813. He joined the Baptist Church at 12, and began the study of law at 21. He was admitted to the Bar, and married, later working as a lawyer, Baptist Minister and Postmaster in Chatauqua County, New York. When he lost his postmaster position, he moved his wife and three children to Wisconsin in 1843.

In 1844, he went to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he met Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church which was then headquartered there. Converted to the Mormon faith and baptized in less than a month, he was quickly made an elder of the church.

When Smith was assassinated three months later while in jail for destroying the office of a newspaper that had angered him, Strang claimed succession on grounds that Smith had told him the leadership was to be his. Brigham Young contested the claim and eventually won out in the battle for leadership, excommunicating Strang and eventually leading the Mormons to Utah. Strang and his dissident followers went to Voree (later known as Spring Prairie), Wis.

Strang was strict in regulating most aspects of life in Voree: meat was not allowed, materialism was decried and sexual morality was strict (Strang had not embraced polygamy). When the influx of gentile (non-Mormon) settlers threatened to disrupt their lifestyle, Strang led his followers to Beaver Island, located off the northwest coast of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

On July 8, 1850, Strang had himself proclaimed king of The Kingdom of God on Earth. Although he claimed to be king of only his followers, he extracted tithes from all residents of the island and fishermen who refused to pay were rumored to have been taken into the woods and whipped. Strang also ordered the county treasurer to give up one-tenth of the taxes collected on the island, a plan bitterly opposed by gentiles who were gradually squeezed off the island. Strang’s reign thus became absolute.

King James Jesse Strang

He erected a great log temple which was used for church, theater and dance hall. Church attendance was compulsory and tithes were levied to be used for improvements, caring for the poor, and paying taxes. He had a boat and ran a saw mill to make lumber for buildings needed to house the colony. Schools were established and Strang founded his own newspaper, The Northern Islander. His printing press published books and pamphlets defending his rule and he wrote long letters to the eastern press attacking accusations against him and his flock that were constantly appearing in the papers of Detroit, Buffalo, New York, and other cities.

But his publications weren’t limited to his faith. The ninth annual report of the Smithsonian Institution printed his paper on the “Natural history of Beaver Island.”

There was a great deal of animosity between the original inhabitants of Beaver Island and the surrounding area and Strang and his followers. Strang put a damper on the Mackinac Island whiskey trade, which was supplanting fur trapping as a major source of income. Local residents resented the Strang’s followers who were imposing their laws on them. Some of the conflict ended in bloodshed or even death.

A further cause of contention came when Strang embraced polygamy, which he had previously denounced. In 1849, he secretly took Elvira Field, a former schoolteacher from Eaton Rapids, as his second wife. Field had been traveling with him disguised a male secretary, Charles Douglas.

After Strang’s change of heart, the elders of his church were informed that each must have at least two wives. When he took his second wife, Strang’s first wife left him and returned to her Wisconsin home. In 1852 he married a third, and in 1855, two more. He had 12 children by his five wives

Elvira Field became Strang’s first polygamous wife after traveling with him disguised as his male secretary, Charles Douglas.

Despite the divine imperative, not more than 20 men on the island practiced polygamy, and those stopped at two wives, declining to follow the king’s example. Perhaps the wives were not as enthusiastic. A 1927 News interview quoted James Donlevy, an 80-year-old former neighbor of believer Orson Campbell:

“Orson was getting on in years, and had piously suggested that perhaps he ought to sacrifice himself to his religious convictions by bringing home a blooming young woman who had taken his saintly eye. What Julia Campbell imparted to him, as she wagged a determined finger beneath his nose, was just this, ‘Yes, bring her here if you want to! But fetch your coffin at the same time!'”

Strang found time to dictate not only the ecclesiastical customs of his subjects, but everything connected with their daily life as well. Among other rules, he decided that long skirts for women were to be prohibited, and that they were to wear bloomers. As the only material available was calico print, “the effect was unusual to say the least,” according to a 1923 Detroit News story.

July 8 was known as King’s Day on Beaver Island and was celebrated as long as the colony lasted with many festivities, including burnt offerings. The head of each family brought a fowl, and a heifer was killed and its body dissected without breaking a bone. There was feasting and rejoicing and people danced on the green.

By 1851 Strang and his followers controlled all the political offices of Mackinac Island, to which Beaver Island and its neighboring islands were attached for judicial and elective purposes. Governor Bingham and state legislators were careful to cultivate the 700 votes of Strang’s followers.

Brigham young contested Strang’s claim to leadership of the Mormons and won. He then excommunicated Strang.

The unrest in the area and the unhappiness of those opposed to Strang’s followers did not go unnoticed, however. Stephen A. Douglas advised President Millard Fillmore to instruct the attorney general to issue orders to the U.S. district attorney of Michigan to begin prosecution of Strang for offenses punishable in the federal court, such as delaying the mail, cutting timber from pubic lands, tax irregularities, counterfeiting and so on.

The United States naval steamer Michigan was ordered to proceed fully armed to Beaver Island. The ship carried a U.S. marshall and deputies and the district attorney who were to bring Strang and the other indicted followers to Detroit for trial.

Strang’s followers were lured to the ship by a ruse to prevent bloodshed and eventually arrived at Detroit in May of 1851. Nearly a hundred strong, they were marched up Woodward to Gratiot and over to the old jail which stood at the corner of Gratiot and Farmer.

A day in June was set for the start of the trial. The defendants were let out on bail on Strang’s word and a pledge that they would all appear when needed. It was agreed that the deputy clerk of the United States District Court should go with the district attorney and officers back to Beaver Island and take the depositions of all witnesses.

The trial lasted about three weeks from June 20 to July 10. Strang, who had been admitted to the bar, served as his own defense attorney. Against all expectations he won, and took his followers back to Beaver Island. His political powers were enhanced by his victory and he was elected to the state legislature, and eventually re-elected for a second term. By all accounts, Strang was well liked in Lansing and was an effective legislator.

The increasing political influence of Strang’s followers was not sitting well with the fishermen from the island and the surrounding area. They were dissatisfied as well with the attitude of Strang’s followers toward justice, which often involved corporal punishment for relatively minor offenses such as violation of a dress code, and the practice of polygamy.

In 1856, one of Strang’s followers, David Brown, reported that he had found his wife in bed with his business partner, Thomas Bedford. A group of men seized Bedford and subjected him to 79 lashes with a whip. Bedford then joined other disgruntled followers, local fishermen, and Mackinac Islanders who were plotting revenge on Strang.

On June 16, 1856, Bedford and Alexander Wentworth led a group of 40 men in an ambush of Strang, who was gravely injured by gunshots. A few days later, Strang, clinging to life, set sail for Voree. He died on King’s Day, July 8, in his first wife’s arms. He was buried in a simple grave five days after a drunken mob of Mackinac Islanders and Irish fishermen descended on the island, burning and looting, and driving out the last of Strang’s followers.

Beaver Island is still populated in part by descendants of the Irish fishermen displaced Strang’s followers, who returned after the king’s subjects had been driven from the island.

Fox Lake on the island was visited for years after the exodus of Strang’s followers by treasure seekers, in search of a huge stash of gold said to have been sunk there before the flight. Presumably no treasure was ever found, but the legend of King Strang lives on.

The Michigan, a U.S. Navy steamship, was used to transport Strang and his followers from Beaver Island to Detroit to stand trial.

By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News