This terrible winter, and not-so-great spring so far (it was SNOWING two days ago!) has kept me from doing as much visiting of historical sites and museums as I would like. So to satisfy my Michigan history itch, I recently read Women and the Lakes by Frederick Stonehouse, which included many interesting stories of women on and around the Great Lakes. Much as I enjoyed reading about female lighthouse keepers, ships’ cooks and even a few ships’ captains, the story that most stuck out for me was actually about a man – a king, in fact. King James Jesse Strang of the Mormon Kingdom of Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan.
The book mentioned Strang when telling the story of Elizabeth Williams, who lived on Beaver Island as young girl and later as lighthouse keeper at the St. James lighthouse. Elizabeth wrote a memoir of her life, titled A Child of the Sea; and Life among the Mormons, which includes her memories of the brief Mormon takeover of the island. In it, she states that her family was driven from their home in the dead of night at gunpoint by the Mormons. To understand what Mormons were doing driving people off an island in Lake Michigan, we’ll need some background first:
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, died in 1844, creating a power vacuum among his followers. Most Mormons followed Brigham Young (and eventually traveled to Utah), but a small minority followed James Strang, a charismatic leader who who had only become a Mormon five months previously. Strang’s followers first settled in Voree, Wisconsin, but he began moving his group to Beaver Island in 1848. They settled on the island because they needed more land and so that they could be more isolated from other white settlers, who they called Gentiles.
Problem was, there were already many of these Gentiles living on the island, including Elizabeth Williams’ family. Although the Mormons started out a small group, they quickly grew as more moved to the island. Within two short years they had become 74% of the population. Tension with the locals was high, and conflicts erupted over land, fishing, and the Mormon religion, especially polygamy. In 1850, the increased Mormon population took over many elected offices, cementing their power on the island.
Also in 1850, Strang proclaimed himself King, with a coronation ceremony that included a crown, robe, shield and scepter. Although Strang claimed not to hold authority over non-Mormon residents, in practice he tried to control them. He clearly wanted them off the island, and the Mormons were accused of forcibly seizing property and physically assaulting locals. Violence occurred on both sides, as the Gentiles wanted the Mormons off the island as well. At one point, Strang was even arrested for obstructing the U.S. Postal Service and taken to Detroit for trial, although the case quickly unraveled and he returned to Beaver Island.
Eventually, Strang and his follows stopped even pretending to follow the laws of the land. He claimed to have a vision from God stating that the islands were to be controlled by the Mormons, and through a process of intimidation and violence, forced the last remaining Gentiles off the island. The Williams family was one of the last to flee. I’d love to read Elizabeth’s memoir at some point to further understand the perspective of non-Mormon settlers on the island at this tumultuous time.
After the Mormons had completely taken over, rumors began to fly on the mainland that the Mormons on the island were engaged in piracy and other nefarious deeds. Stories claimed Mormon ships would troll the shoreline, looking for unprotected towns and farmhouses to raid. Using his faithful Mormon voting bloc, Strang was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1853 , where he used his influence get a Mormon lighthouse keeper appointed to a nearby lighthouse. After the Mormon keeper took his post, lake captains claimed that he would periodically turn the light off so that ships would get stuck on the rocks and then plundered by Mormon pirates. The most vicious tales accused Mormon crews of attacking ships on the lake, killing their crews and stealing their cargo. Most of these stories have no proof, and those that have some basis in fact may have been greatly exaggerated. Nonetheless, just the fact that these stories were told shows the level of the animosity between the Mormons and the Gentiles.
Despite these tales of treachery, the Mormons on the island also accomplished a number of good tasks. They founded the town of St. James, which became the most populous on the island. They also founded first newspaper in northern Michigan, the Northern Islander. Strang himself was instrumental in getting two lighthouses built on the island – one of which would later be kept by Elizabeth Williams. The Mormons built up the infrastructure of the island, including many roads, businesses and public buildings, creating a much more modern community than had previously existed.
Ultimately, conflict within the Mormon community brought down Strang. King Strang had some strange ideas and tried to dictate the minutia of his followers’ lives, which they did not always appreciate. In 1856, he proclaimed that all women must wear bloomers, a garment many hated. When one women dared to refuse the order, he had her husband flogged in public. In retaliation, the husband and a friend shot Strang in the back. Neither man was ever convicted of the crime and Strang died a few days later on July 9, 1856.
After Strang’s death, people from nearby islands and the mainland drove the Mormons off Beaver Island. Although many were former Beaver Islanders, the leaders were likely speculators interested in the land cleared and cultivated by the Mormons. These Gentiles showed no kindness and mercy to the Mormons – most were forced on to boats without any possessions, ending up in Detroit or Chicago with nothing but the clothes on their backs and losing everything they had built on Beaver Island. The settlers took back their own homes as well as those built by the Mormons, thus ending the strange and sad tale of the Mormons on Lake Michigan.
Most of the Mormon buildings are gone from the island, including the “King’s Cottage,” Strang’s home, which was allowed to fall to ruins after his death. However, a print shop built by the Mormons still stands and contains the main museum of the Beaver Island Historical Society (they also run a marine museum and a historic house museum). Guess I need to add another museum to my list!
I hope you found this story as fascinating as I did – who knew there was a Mormon Kingdom in Michigan!