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The Mormon Pirate King, James Strang

King James Jesse Strang (from James Strang)

This page is a look into the life of King James Jesse Strang (1817-1856) shortly before and during his time on Beaver Island, MI in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Strang was a Mormon who declared himself the true prophet after Joseph Smith’s death. He proclaimed himself king of Beaver Island and came into conflict with many living on mainland Michigan.

Life Before Beaver Island

After the death of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, the mantle of leader of the church was up for grabs. The two main contenders were James Jesse Strang and Brigham Young. Young won the leadership and Strang was considered a heretic and excommunicated from the Mormon Church. Strang attempted to bring followers to him and to do this he wanted to use logic and rhetoric. Strang penned a letter to two leaders, Orson Hyde and John Taylor, requesting to know by what authority they acted since they did not act under the “first presidency” (3, 1846), or in layman terms official leadership, according to Strang’s sect. Their response to his inquiry shows just how much they despised him and his movement. Besides simply stating that they need not tell him where their authority comes they tell him that “Sir—After Lucifer was cut off and thrust down to hell, we have no knowledge that God ever condescended to investigate the subject or right of authority with him… we have no disposition to ask whence yours came.” (3, 1846)

Because of this hostility Strang moved his followers, who believed him to be the true prophet and leader, to Voree, Wisconsin, in modern day Walworth County, WI. After a short time there a new, more secure location was needed, this was Beaver Island Michigan. (9)

Life on Beaver Island

King Strang’s house on Beaver Island (from Project Gutenburg)

Once Strang and his followers arrived on Beaver Island in 1848 the people were content though worried by the presence of Mormons. Strang’s strong opposition to alcohol, one of his Mormon tenents, on the Island led to much hostility among, as stereotypes would assume, the Irish on the Island. This led to the so called War of Whiskey Point in 1850 in which Strang fired a cannon at the non-Mormon settlers (9). This in turn encouraged Strang to try to for more power by placing a tax for not being Mormon on Beaver Island. Soon following tensions rose as the Mormons grew more powerful and Strang declared himself king. He then saw it as his right to rule the entire island and therefore take goods and land from the Christians, Gentiles in Mormon theology, on the island (9).There was some resistance but some people fled to the mainland where Strang’s followers soon pursued to gain supplies and wealth. By the newspapers around Lake Michigan Strang and his followers were declared pirates and local town militias defended the coastal harbors from their raids. (4)

Conflicts arose further when Strang decided to accept the doctrine of Polygamy, much to the aggravation of the Christians on the island and even most of Strang’s followers as one of their contentions with the mainstream Mormon Church was the doctrine of Polygamy (9). As these tensions flared Strang was accused of many crimes because he was the figurehead and king of the Mormons on Beaver Island. Strang was known to be an eloquent orator and was thus able to talk his way out of court. All of these events, his supposed piracy, robbery of Christians on Beaver Island, and his advocacy of polygamy did not stop Strang from pursuing more power in the civil government. This astounding feat of talking his way out of court, as his own defense attorney, won him the favor of the media, newspapers at the time, and he was able to ride the wave of enthusiasm and run as a Democrat for a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives (9). Ironically, at this same time, Strang was acting as King of Beaver Island and not just king of his Mormon followers. All of these events led to clashes with local town militias along the coast of Michigan, active plans to oust the Mormons from Beaver Island, and armed conflicts on the Island itself (9). The citizen soldier ideal of the time led to much armed resistance in the area to someone who declared themselves king in American society.

First Hand Accounts, James Jesse Strang and Elizabeth Whitney Williams

In one of Strang’s works he mentions a law passed on Beaver Island in 1854 that to sell intoxicating drinks a permit would be required. He mentions there being a problem enforcing the law because “the officers of the township of Peaine were all Mormons, against whom a strong prejudice exists” (1, p. 15). Peaine being the county in which Beaver Island resides. This shows just how much control the followers of Strang exercised on the Island to be able to make a law to their benefit and then hold the entire police force as their people. This is also one of the accusations of robbery by the people. By trying to collect fines for violating the law the Mormons were “spoken of in the newspapers as acts of robbery.”(1, p. 15) according to Strang’s account.

He also mentions another law regarding the reorganization of Emmet county, as he was an elected representative at the time, to include pieces of mainland Michigan beyond Beaver Island, therefore giving Strang more influence in the area. In reaction, and according to Strang under the influence of politicians in North Michigan, “seventy misguided men… were induced to fire on the Sheriff and his boatmen”(1, p. 15), the Sheriff being a Mormon and the fishermen being non-Mormon residents of Beaver Island. The same politicians Strang mentioned also pledged military aid to those who violently resisted the law reorganizing Emmet County. Later again he accuses those who oppose him as “outlaws who had been engaged in the unsuccessful attempt to expel the Mormons from Beaver Island” (1, p. 19) and tells of their movement to Grand Traverse Bay area, one of the main areas adversely affected by his followers.

The important part about this piece written by Strang is a look into his mind by the use of his syntax. Outside of his simple recounting of the actions taken against his endeavor for power and the slander of politicians he uses the rhetoric of a “crusade against the Mormons of Beaver Island in 1851” (1, p. 16). His mindset is that they are actively trying to remove the Mormons from the area and not that Strang and his followers were imposing their will on those around them, most important is that he saw all the actions he took as righteous.

Strang claims, in parallel with his earlier statement about the newspapers, that the Mormons could not have committed the acts they were accused of because they “were destitute of the necessary boats for any such undertakings, and were in extreme want of quiet, and to the last degree anxious to avoid further excitement.” (1, p. 20). This statement is opposed and degraded though by Strang’s acquisition of a cannon for use against the fishermen and his followers raids on settlements such as Charlevoix. Strang was also able to organize his own Mormon militia from his followers. His own words state that “A cannon and a stock of powder and lead was purchased; a regular guard enrolled, who were on duty nightly, while others were drilling” (1, p. 25). Even more interesting was Strang’s own admission that the Mormons “procured a large schooner… anchored in the Harbor, and in the night filled with armed men, who kept below the deck.” (1, p. 25). Strang attempts to put forth the Mormons as the innocent party who attacked and built up arms only to defend themselves, this narrative is debatable given Strang’s tendencies and other firsthand accounts, one of these being the account by Elizabeth Whitney Williams. Elizabeth gives her account of life on Beaver Island and her family’s move to Charlevoix after the Mormons became increasingly hostile and contrasts the narrative given by Strang himself.

Elizabeth’s first mention of Strang comes within the context of a simple background of Strang, his education, his faith, and his career. Her early accounts of Strang bear a man of peaceful and kind but wary nature with a definite hint of foreshadow about what she learned in later years about Strang. At this point in her account she did not know the true nature of Strang and his Mormon followers but her grandfather did. Elizabeth gives a story about a hungry Mormon family, as they were woefully unprepared, coming to her house and coming up to her grandfather who, in Elizabeth’s words, stated “Me no want you keel me. Me give you everything in the house you no keel me.” (2, p. 71). While her grandfathers pleading was a misunderstanding of intent of the Mormon family there was clearly a fear of the Mormon settlers and rumors of their actions at this point which Elizabeth was not aware as she sat down and ate food with the Mormon family casually. Very soon after this the image of Strang takes a dark turn in Elizabeth’s narrative. After Strang returned to Beaver Island in the Spring, as he had left for the winter, he enthusiastically thanked those who had helped his followers, this was good for the non-Mormon residents on the Island but it was Strang’s new revelation that caused problems. Strang claimed that in his new revelation to his followers that “it was right for his people to take whatever was necessary for them to have. That is was their privilege to take from the Gentiles.” (2, p. 75). This according to Elizabeth was the beginning of Strang’s offenses and openly hostile nature.

Though not all of Strang’s followers wanted this path, some gave information out about the people who robbed the non-Mormon residents. According to Elizabeth those Mormons were whipped for speaking the truth, one of those whipped was Thomas Bedford who later took revenge on Strang. Strang’s sanity could be called into question by Elizabeth as she recalls that out of Strang’s four wives, at this point he had proclaimed polygamy righteous, his favorite wife was the youngest and routinely was dress up as a man and called “Charles Douglass” (2, p. 91) by Strang. It is at this point in Elizabeth Williams’ narrative that the hostility from the Mormons is openly shown. She tells of a time when the Mormons following Strang openly took boats and supplies from the fishermen on Beaver Island and hid them. She states that “All were well armed and ready to resist and interference from the Gentiles.” (2, p. 92). This again contrasts Strang’s own claim that the Mormons were peaceful and did not even have the means to rob the island and along the coast of Michigan. At this point Elizabeth also mentions the first killing committed by the Mormon followers of Strang. She states that the Mormons shot Thomas Bennett for refusing to pay a tax imposed by Strang, Elizabeth even goes as far as to claim that Strang himself gave the order to kill Thomas Bennett and his family. While they only killed Thomas they injured his brother and almost shot his mother. This is when Elizabeth begins to become terrified of the Mormons and Strang especially. She mentions a time after the killing of Bennett when Strang came to have dinner with her family and she was made to sit on his lap, as she was a child at the time, and Strang asked her why she was so afraid of him. She responded that “I see blood on your head. I am afraid of you” (2, p. 97). Her mother explained to Strang that the townspeople had been saying “the blood of Bennett was resting on Strang’s head.” (2, p. 97). This shows the fear and blame the people of the Island give to Strang for the issues with his followers and rumors of his orders in such cases. At this point in her narrative Elizabeth points out that the Mormons became even more bold in their taking of boats and supplies and she was sent off the island to live with family friends.

Upon her return Elizabeth accounts that the Mormons had grown and become more organized and open about their robberies. She states that “a band of forty thieves, these men were being trained to go out and do all the robbing from the Gentiles they saw fit to do.” (2, p. 129). This was the final assault on the safety of many people living on Beaver Island and many therefore saw fit to leave including Elizabeth. Her family was loading supplies and their property onto a boat to move to Charlevoix, a small town on the coast of Western Michigan, when the armed Mormons stood by their property as they were loading forcing them to leave some of their things behind. They were safe for some time in but soon the Mormons came there too.

On July 14th, 1853 the Mormons attacked Charlevoix (2). Two fishing boats landed on a beach near the town. The people had been preparing for this day as bullets had been made and the men armed in case of attack. Elizabeth terms it “The Battle At Charlevoix” (2, p. 151). The men of the town organized a small militia style force according the Elizabeth as there were always two men on watch able to warn the other men when they spotted the Mormons.  She recounts that the Mormons landed and talked to the men of Charlevoix in a heated argument before the fight and that they never made it farther than the beach when the fighting began and had to retreat, her own brother was wounded in the fight by a bullet. Her account of the Mormons ends here as she then left for Traverse City, MI, a larger coastal town near Charlevoix.

The End of the Conflicts

King Strang’s death is one that does not befit someone who declared themselves King. James Strang was assassinated by two of his disgruntled followers, Bedford and Wentworth, in 1856 as he headed to the USS Michigan in the harbor of St. James, named after himself, on the island. Strang was shot in the back but did not die immediately. He was taken to Voree, WI, his original colony, but it took three weeks until he died, a very common ending for a man who spent much of his life in excitement. His two assassins were arrested but released with no charges following the incident. This led to his followers being pushed off Beaver Island, much to the relief of coastal towns near Beaver Island, as they were suddenly leaderless (9).

Primary Sources

  1. Strang, James Jesse; Ancient and Modern Michilimackinac, including an account of the controversy between Mackinac and the MormonsMichigan County Histories and Atlases. 1854
  2. Williams, Elizabeth Whitney; A Child of The Sea, And Life Among the Mormons. Beaver Island Historical Society. 1905
  3. Voree Herald. 1846. prepared by John Coltharp
  4. Wholesale Robbery by Pirates on Lake Michigan“. New York Times. Oct. 1o, 1855
  5. Relic of a Pirate Band“. New York Times. Jan. 5, 190

Secondary Sources

  1. Shepard, William (2008). “Shadows on the Sun Dial: John E. Page and the StrangitesDialogue Journal Vol. 41, Num. 1. Pg 34-66
  2. Van Noord, Roger (1988). King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang. University of Illinois Press.
  3. Foster, Craig L. (1994). “From Temple Mormon to Anti-Mormon: The Ambivalent Odyssey of Increase Van DusenDialogue Journal Vol. 27, Num. 3. Pg 275-286
  4. Pepper, Terry; Post, Warren (2000). “Who Was James Jesse StrangThe Society For Strang Studies

Further Reading