James Jesse Strang Seeing The Light

The "King" of Beaver Island. Home Back

The early days
James Jesse Strang was born in New York State in 1813, where he became a member of the Baptist church at the age of twelve, and began study of the law at the age of twenty-one. Marrying his wife Mary, they moved with their three children to Chautauqua County New York, where he worked as a lawyer, Baptist Minister and the County Postmaster.

With the loss of his Postmaster position in 1843, he moved his wife and three children to Wisconsin, and the following year again moved to Nauvoo Illinois. While in Nauvoo, Strang met and established a relationship with Joseph Smith, the founder of the fledgling Mormon Church, which was at the time headquartered in Nauvoo.

Strang converts to Mormonism
Impressed by Smiths rhetoric and ideals, Strang converted to the Mormon faith. Doubtless, Strang's admiration for Smith must have been mutual, since Strang was baptized within three months, and soon became appointed as an elder of the Church.

Not long thereafter, Smith was jailed for destroying the office of a newspaper that had written criticizing articles about he and his Church. While in jail, Smith was assassinated, thereby leaving the Mormon Church without leadership.

The struggle for control
As elders in the Church, both Brigham Young and Strang claimed to have been chosen by Smith to succeed him, and a power struggle ensued between the two, as they clamored for Church supremacy. The Mormon followers quickly chose sides as either "Brighamites" of "Strangites."

Strang even produced a document that he claimed was written by Smith some time before his death, stating that Strang was to be Smith's successor. While the document may have swayed a few fence-sitters into the "Strangite" camp, it was not sufficient to the beliefs of the majority. Thus, Young won the struggle and assumed leadership of the Church. Young immediately excommunicated Strang, and soon thereafter led his followers to Utah.

Strang and his group of dissident followers went to Voree Wisconsin (later to become known as Spring Prairie.) Strang took leadership of his new Church to heart, and quickly tightened his grip over his followers, decrying material possessions, forbidding the eating of meat, and tightly holding the sexual morality of his followers to the highest standards.

The revelation
As had Joseph Smith before him, Strang claimed to be blessed by heavenly visions, and claimed that an angel had appeared before him, revealing the location of an account of an ancient people, buried in a hill south of White River bridge.

After publicly revealing this vision to his followers on September 13, 1845, four of his most trusted elders accompanied him to a location beneath an oak tree deep in the woods, at which point Strang informed them that it was the spot beneath which the secret was buried. The four men later reported that "the tree was surrounded by a sward of deeply rooted grass, such as is usually found in the openings, and upon the most critical examination we could not discover any indication that it had ever been cut through or disturbed."

Proceeding to dig, eventually discovering an earthenware case, the witnesses further reported "We examined as we dug all the way with the utmost care. We say, with utmost confidence that no part of the earth through which we dug exhibited any sign or indication that it had been moved or disturbed at any time previous. The roots of the tree stuck down on every side very closely, extending below the case, and closely interwoven with roots from other trees. None of them had been broken or cut away. No clay is found in the country like that of which the case is made."

Opening the clay case, it was found to contain six mysterious brass plates, which were taken as being of divine origin.

This revelation sealed Strang's status as a "Prophet and a Seer of God" in the eyes of his followers, and their zealous dedication to their leader increased immeasurably. When the influx of gentile (non-Mormon) settlers into the Voree area threatened to disrupt their lifestyle, Strang set-out to identify a safe refuge for his flock.

Arriving in Northern Michigan, Strang began to search in the Charlevoix area, eventually identifying Beaver Island with it's secluded harbor, lush forests and abundant fishing as  "where I will come to build up my kingdom."

The move to Beaver Island
And so it came to be that in June 1848, a steamer carrying Strang and approximately twenty-five of his followers landed on Beaver Island. Before winter ice closed "St. James Harbor" for the season, approximately one hundred more of his followers arrived.

In deference to Brigham Young, Strang had frequently spoken-out against the practice of polygamy. However, unbeknown to most of the public, he secretly took Elvira Field as his second wife in 1849. Field had been traveling with him disguised as a man, and had been passing herself off under the name of Charles Douglas.

The coronation
On July 8, 1850 Strang proclaimed himself to be "King of the Kingdom of God on Earth," before two hundred and thirty five of his followers. While claiming to be King only of his followers, he began extracting tithes from the gentiles, consisting largely of fishermen who called the island home long before the Strangites arrival. Refusing to pay, it was rumored that Strang had many of the fishermen taken into the woods and flogged, in the hope of opening-up their purse strings. Strang then ordered the County Treasurer to hand-over one tenth of the taxes collected on the island, a move that once again met with a wholly negative reception by the island's "gentile" population.

Strang erected a large log temple, owned a commercial boat and saw mill, which was used to saw lumber for housing for the island's growing Mormon population. Strang then founded a newspaper "The Northern Islander," and published books and pamphlets defending his right of Divine rule.

Friction continued to increase between gentile and Mormon, fueled by Strang's suffocation of the whiskey trade in the area, and his sudden open embracing of polygamy as a "Divine requirement" of his followers. Many scuffles broke-out between the two factions, leading to the "War of Whiskey Point," won by Strang's followers when they fired a cannon into an unruly gang of rebels assembled at the trading post. As a result of such altercations, by the early 1850's most of the gentile population on Beaver Island abandoned their homes for new lives on the mainland.

Going too far?
Mandating a requirement that all Church elders take at least two wives, Strang did his religious duty by marrying his third wife in 1852, and his fourth and fifth in 1855. All-told, Strang fathered twelve children from these five women. In spite of the divine imperative, no more than twenty of the islands Mormon men were known to have actually practiced polygamy.

Strang's control of his disciples began to widen beyond matters spiritual. Many consider his edict that women begin wearing bloomers, as opposed to the customary long skirts of the time, to have been a major component in the resentment that led to his eventual downfall.

By 1851 Strang and his entourage managed to hold all the political offices on nearby Mackinac Island, to which Beaver Island and its neighboring islands were attached for judicial and elective purposes. However, the continuing unrest between the gentiles and Mormons on the island, combined with Strang's unconventional religious practices was not going unnoticed. 

The arrest
The Michigan "Mormon trouble" eventually reached President Millard Fillmore himself. Fillmore instructed 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. Some of the Federal charges being delaying the mail, cutting timber from pubic lands, tax irregularities and counterfeiting.

The US Naval gunboat MICHIGAN was immediately dispatched to Beaver Island. Onboard, a US Marshall, Deputies and the District Attorney with highest level orders to deliver Strang and his followers to stand trial the Federal Court in Detroit. Though some subterfuge, almost one hundred of Strang's followers were lured to the ship, arriving in Detroit in May of 1851.

Trial and triumph
The trial was set for the next month, and a deal was struck to allow the release of all defendants on bail. The Deputy Clerk of the Court was instructed to travel to Beaver Island to depose all witnesses. The trial ran from June 20th through July 10th. Strang drawing on his past experience served as his own defense attorney.

It would appear that he did an admirable job, as against all expectation he won the case, and in victory he led his followers back to his Beaver Island Kingdom. The astounding court victory further sealed his power-base, and Strang was elected to the State legislature.

Murder or Martyrdom?
In 1856, David Brown reportedly found his wife in bed with his business partner, Thomas Bedford. A group of Mormon men seized Bedford and administered immediate justice through the administration of seventy-nine lashes across Bedford's back. 

As a result of his treatment, a strong resentment grew within Bedford for Strang and his teachings. It would appear that Bedford was not the only member of the community to have misgivings concerning Strang's leadership, as Bedford and a group of 40 other men ambushed Strang on June 16, 1856, mortally wounding the King. The wounded Strang, along with most of his followers, set sail for Voree two days later, where Strang passed away a month later on July 8 - King's Day.

Epilogue
On Strang's death, most of the Irish fishermen who had lived on Beaver Island prior to Strang's arrival, returned home. In fact, they found the island an improved place, since under Strang's "rule," significant improvements in cultivation, roads and housing had been made, transforming a large area of the island from wilderness to a civilized outpost.

Beaver Island is still largely populated by the descendents of those original Irish fishermen.

There have been persistent rumors that Strang's followers sequestered a stash of gold in Fox Lake as they were making their hasty escape from the island. Throughout the years, many treasure seekers have attempted to find the "Strang's treasure." None have succeeded. While it is likely that no treasure exists, It could also be that it just has not been found!

To this day, a small and widespread group of believers follow Strang's teachings, believing that Strang was the true chosen successor to Smith. Click here to visit their website, and learn more of Strang's teachings.

Reference Sources


A brief history of Beaver Island, website
Detroit News, article by Vivian M. Baulch, 06/16/1999 
Detroit News, Rear View Mirror, by Jenny Nolan, website
Northern Michigan Handbook for Travelers, J. G. Inglis, 1898
The Original Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The Voree Plates, website


Terry Pepper. This page updated 12/02/2007

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This page updated 12/02/2007