Yesterday afternoon in Beaver’s Paradise Bay, Bruland taught us paddling techniques, rescues and a wet exit — how to escape from the cockpit and spray skirt of a capsized kayak. Then, with Bruland nervously eyeing dark clouds on the horizon, we parted and agreed to meet for a morning launch. A fearsome thunderstorm kept me awake most of the night.
This morning on our way to meet Bruland, Cassidy and I walked, through fog, past a couple of seagulls shrieking over a bit of bun in front of Daddy Franks hot dog stand, and by the white board-and-batten Beaver Island Historical Society — otherwise known as the Mormon Print Shop. From this 19th-century building, King James Strang waged a wily propaganda campaign to keep the throne he bestowed upon himself at a July 1850 coronation. He held the ceremony in a massive log temple that once stood just down the road from the print shop. Strang donned a red flannel cape trimmed in faux ermine for his coronation.
While James Strang is mostly remembered for his bizarre behavior on this island (except by a persevering group of Strangite Mormons based in Wisconsin), the truth is, he came close to wresting the Mormon church from Brigham Young in the wake of the murder of the church’s prophet and founder Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844. Strang had only been a Mormon five months when Smith died, and Young was a church leader. But Strang had something that Young didn’t: a letter from Joseph Smith designating him, James Strang, as the church’s successor when Smith died. Legitimate or not, the letter was postmarked Nauvoo, Illinois, just days before Smith’s murder and appeared to be in either Smith’s writing or in that of his scribe. The letter was authentic enough to convince most of Joseph Smith’s family that he’d indeed meant for Strang to take his church’s reigns.
Armed with the letter, Strang recruited, by some estimates, 12,000 followers. Strang’s initial Mormon colony was Voree, near Burlington, Wisconsin. But about the time his authority there was stalked by scandal, infighting and a parting of ways with the Smith family (not to mention reports back that Brigham Young’s risky trek to the Salt Lake desert was turning into a success), he had a revelation. In his words: "I beheld a land amidst wide waters, and covered with large timber, with a deep broad bay on one side of it."
The vision described Beaver Island nicely, a place he’d seen on a trip in the summer of 1846. The next year Strang, his wife, Mary, and other Mormon families began settling the island. Over the next nine years, the population climbed to about 900 people.
Tucked away on his Lake Michigan isle, Strang said he found a set of plates with ancient writings (in Wisconsin Strang had also found a set inscribed with the ancient writing of one Rajah Mancho of Vorito) that he compiled into a Book of the Law of the Lord that governed island life. The plates also included the revelation that Strang should be crowned king of his people. Around the same time Strang took up polygamy, eventually marrying three other women.