The Mormon Monarch of Michigan.
The story of James J. Strang begins with his following of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism and the Latter-Day Saints Movement. In 1844, Strang was ordained as a Mormon elder by Smith's brother Hyrum and sent to Wisconsin to settle in the town of Voree. But it was not long after Strang arrived in Wisconsin that Smith was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob in Carthage, Illinois, which triggered something of a succession crisis within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Seeing an opportunity for self-promotion, Strang proclaimed himself the rightful head of the Latter-Day Saints Movement and announced that he was the one true successor to Smith's leadership over the Mormon faithful. Strang said that he had been given a letter of appointment from Smith just days before his death, and he also told all who would listen that angels appeared to him at the exact moment Smith was killed and provided him with instructions to carry on the Mormon founder's teachings.
That move immediately put him into conflict with Mormon leaders Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon, both of whom were also vying for church control. In order to solidify his claim as head of the movement, Strang claimed to have discovered a set of three small metal plates under an oak tree near Voree. According to him, the plates contained the final testament of an ancient American ruler named "Rajah Manchou of Vorito" and stated "the forerunner men shall kill, but a mighty prophet there shall dwell. I will be his strength, and he shall bring forth my records." According to Strang, that inscription offered supposedly undisputable proof that he was indeed the one true successor of Joseph Smith.
Moving to Beaver Island
In time, Strang's following grew to a point where its small settlement in Wisconsin became unsuitable to the task of providing for everyone. Declaring that he was setting out to establish a "second stake at Zion," Strang marched the majority of his followers to Beaver Island--the largest island in Lake Michigan, located off the shores of Northern Michigan--in 1848.
Once there, Strang began to establish his own theocracy away from the rest of the world. The soon-to-be monarch steadily reworked Mormon doctrine to best suit his personal beliefs. Among his ideas were celestial marriage, baptism for the dead, and animal sacrifice--all of which helped set the Strangites apart as a distinct entity from the other Mormon groups prevalent at the time.
Strang soon decided to take the next step in solidifying his hold over his flock. On July 8, 1850, he proclaimed himself king and, with a tin crown on his head, began a reign that would rock the surrounding area. He was careful not to say that his rule had replaced that of the U.S. government, instead claiming that his rule was over the Kingdom of God and announcing that he was the true ruler of the faithful--not of the soil they tread upon.
However, it was not long before disputes broke out on the island, and several Mormon settlers were excommunicated from the flock. Many subsequently returned to the mainland, where they began spreading often-exaggerated rumors about the goings-on within Strang's domain and building a significant level of public interest in the settlement on Beaver Island.
Hearing of a strange theocratic kingdom in the middle of Lake Michigan, U.S. President Millard Fillmore dispatched U.S. District Attorney George Bates to Michigan to investigate. After arriving at Beaver Island aboard the warship USS Michigan in May 1851, Bates hauled Strang back to Detroit to stand trial on the charges of treason, counterfeiting, and trespassing on government land.
The trial, however, had the opposite effect from what Bates had intended. Strang not only successfully defended himself against those charges but also managed to use the publicity that stemmed from the trial to increase his following and even land himself a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives in 1853.
When Strang took up his duties as a state representative, he appeared to be a dedicated and caring politician, winning over many who had once feared him and his flock. Just weeks after he was sworn in, the Detroit Advertiser testified to his character, writing that "Mr. Strang's course as a member of the present Legislature has disarmed much of the prejudices which have previously surrounded him. Whatever may be said or thought of the peculiar sect of which he is the local head, I take pleasure in stating that throughout this session he has conducted himself with the degree of decorum and propriety which have been equaled by his industry, sagacity, good temper, apparent regard for the true interests of the people, and the obligations of his official oath."
A Tyrant at Home
On Beaver Island, however, Strang's "sagacity, good temper, apparent regard for the true interests of the people, and the obligations of his official oath" were far from evident. With each passing year, Strang's rule seemed to grow more and more tyrannical as he ordered men flogged in public for a variety of offenses and excommunicated any who fell out of his good graces. Regulations also became more and more stringent--including bans on coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco--and laws governing the dress of both men and women were implemented. Harsh punishments were given to those who violated the rules.
Although Strang had at one point stood vehemently against the Brighamite practice of polygamy, or having more than one spouse at the same time, he seemed to have an abrupt about-face in his beliefs. Shortly after his coronation, Strang announced that he had a change of heart and that polygamy was now acceptable with his doctrine. His sudden change in attitude disturbed many of his followers, and some began to leave Beaver Island.
Within a very short time, Strang's edicts created significant tensions between his kingdom and Michigan's local "Gentile" population. The Mormons exchanged gunfire with local fishermen on the mainland on several occasions, most notably during an event in Charlevoix County on July 13, 1853, that became known as the Battle of Pine River. The fight did little more than inflict a handful of injuries on each side, but it highlighted just how tense things had become between the Mormons and their neighbors.
Both factions had very different accounts of how the battle began. According to the fishermen at Pine River, the Mormons came to Northern Michigan to capture two families who had fled Beaver Island, and the locals were defending the families from deportation. Strang, in his own writings, did not deny that his men had arrived to take a Mormon family back to the island, but he stated that his men were doing so in order to bring those families to justice for stealing from other Mormons and Native Americans in the area.
As for who shot first, there was also significant debate. Strang wrote that the "crowd commenced a murderous fire" upon the Mormons as they were getting back into their boats and that "the intention of the outlaws was to kill the whole party, and then report that they had been killed while engaged in some crime and thus set public indignation against the Mormons."
The fishermen, however, claimed that it was the Mormons who initiated the bloodshed. By their accounts, after failing to apprehend the families, a Mormon by the name of Jonathan Pierce became enraged. Described by the Gentiles as one of Strang's "hard-fisted men," Pierce was said to have shouted, "We are running away like a d***ed set of cowards....I'll let them know that we are not afraid," before turning and firing his pistol at a young fisherman named Lewis Gebeau. Struck in the calf, Gebeau fell to the ground, and his compatriots feared that he had been killed. In response, they opened fire in retaliation, driving the Mormons from the shore.
During that time, Strang was making enemies throughout Michigan. On the mainland, many locals were growing increasingly angry with Strang due to his stance against selling liquor to Native-American tribes, an illicit practice that was often used to supplement the income of the area's settlers. On Beaver Island, it was understood that several men had illegally procured pistols and were taking up target practice in the woods in preparation for a coming coup.
The Mormon Kingdom Crumbles
The fall of Strang's kingdom began on June 16, 1856. While Strang waited on the dock at St. James--Beaver Island's largest city, which was named, of course, in honor of him--he was approached from behind by two armed men whom he had publicly humiliated: Thomas Bedford and Alexander Wentworth. Bedford had been accused of adultery and beaten before a crowd, while Wentworth, who had spoken out against the Strangite practice of polygamy, had been accused of being the product of an incestuous relationship.
Bedford and Wentworth snuck up behind Strang on the St. James dock and quickly unloaded their pistols into the king. Strang was hit three times--one bullet grazed his head; another pierced his cheek; and a third lodged into his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. As one last show of disrespect for the fallen monarch, the assassins violently struck Strang with the butts of their pistols before fleeing the scene and escaping to the safety of the nearby USS Michigan.
Strang, though badly wounded, was not dead yet. His followers whisked him to Voree, Wisconsin, where his ministry had begun and which was far from the clutches of his attackers. But, with Strang incapacitated, the locals on the Michigan mainland now saw an opportunity to strike, landing in large mobs all over Beaver Island and driving people from their homes.
"They came marching through the streets of St. James ordering all Mormons to leave and giving them only 24 hours to do it or be shot," Elvira Field, one of Strang's many wives, recalled. "Those individuals who tried to oppose the mob and defend themselves were thrust into the street and their houses burned. The Mormon tabernacle on the hill was torched, as were storehouses, businesses, valuable dwellings and the Mormon printshop."
In total, nearly 2,600 people were forced off Beaver Island. Some of the displaced Strangites made their way back to Voree, while others scattered across the country to join other Mormon groups.
In Voree, Strang lay paralyzed for three weeks before finally succumbing to his wounds on July 9, 1856 -- six years and a day after he first declared himself king on Beaver Island. To make matters worse, he had refused to appoint a successor, telling those who inquired that angels would descend from the heavens to appoint a new ruler. Unfortunately for the true believers, those angels never appeared, and when Strang died, his flock was left without a leader.
Over time, the vast majority of Strang's followers assimilated into the larger Mormon groups around the country, but a handful remained true to the teachings of their former king. To this day, it is estimated that there are roughly 300 people who still hold on to the doctrine of James Strang, and two websites dedicated to the Strangite faith continue to conduct their missionary work through the World Wide Web.
By Ray Vann
Ray Vann is a freelance writer and historian with a master's degree in history from Brooklyn College.
Caption: Beaver Island as seen from Lake Michigan. (Photo by Amy Wagenaar.)
Caption: James J. Strang, the self-appointed Mormon monarch of Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Keith Grassmick and the Beaver Island Historical Society.)
Caption: Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism and the Latter-Day Saints Movement, who Strang claimed to have succeeded as head of the Mormon faith. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-21215.)
Caption: An 1855 map of Michigan shows Beaver Island located in northern Lake Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan State University Maps Library.)
Caption: The warship USS Michigan, which brought Strang from Beaver Island to the mainland to stand trial. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.)
Caption: President Millard Fillmore, who ordered the investigation of Strang's Mormon kingdom in 1851. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-21215.)
Caption: The Mormon Print Shop on Beaver Island is now home to the Beaver Island Historical Museum. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Jhflanagan.)
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Title Annotation:||James J. Strang|
|Publication:||Michigan History Magazine|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2019|
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