On July 8, 1850 the curtain rose on a stage in a massive log building on Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island. The audience—a group of 250-some anti-Brigham Young Mormons who’d recently settled on the sparsely populated island—must have stared in awe. Before them the man they hailed as their prophet, James Strang, sat on a throne rigged from a chair padded with moss and covered with a painted cloth. He was cloaked in a faux-ermine-trimmed red flannel cape, and a mural of a palace interior hung behind him. The theatric touches were courtesy of George Adams, Strang’s assistant and former small-time actor. With a flourish, Adams crowned Strang and declared him king of his Beaver Island Mormon kingdom. As the ceremony closed the crowd cheered, “Long live James, King of Zion!”
The scene was certainly one of the most bizarre in Great Lakes’ History—the makeshift royal trappings against the primitive island life, the voices echoing out over a frontier kingdom where the only other inhabitants were a handful of traders, fishermen and Indians. But quirky as it was, the six-year reign of the man born Jesse James Strang (later, he switched his first and middle names to become James Jesse) was more than a strange sideshow in history.
Strang can’t be explained simply as a fanatic with illusions of royalty. On one hand, he was a manipulator who stopped at almost nothing to fulfill his theocratic desires. On the other, he was a brilliant writer, debater, politician and thinker who served honorably during two terms in the Michigan Legislature. He opposed slavery, was fair to Native Americans and allowed women and, in at least one case, a black man to hold high offices in his church.
Even within Mormonism debate remains over Strang’s rightful place in history. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has written him off as an irritating charlatan. Yet 150 years after his death, some 300 Strangite Mormons still hail him as the true successor to Mormon leadership following the death of Mormon founder Joseph Smith in 1844. Roger Van Noord, author of Assassination of a Michigan King, which is regarded as the most authoritative account to date of Strang’s life, sums Strang up as, “a magnificent scoundrel.”
It’s true that Strang had to have brains and cunning to create the only monarchy ever established on United States soil, but his chosen place also helped him. He found in Northern Michigan a region ripe for exploitation. His kingdom’s island location was in the middle of a burgeoning Great Lakes economy, yet from Manistee to Marquette there weren’t more than 500 eligible voters. He quickly understood that if he could build a sizeable community that voted in unison, he could control local and regional government.
Strang needed a following. To develop one, he contested Brigham Young for the leadership of the Mormon Church after the death of its founder, Joseph Smith. That Strang was, for a period, Young’s chief rival is a remarkable achievement considering Strang had only been a Mormon for five months when the June 1844 assassination of Smith by non-Mormons threw his church into turmoil.
Strang, a 31-year-old attorney and a card-carrying Baptist who’d flirted with atheism, traveled from his home in Burlington, Wisconsin, to the Mormon headquarters of Nauvoo, Illinois, in the winter of 1844. He stayed several weeks—long enough to become a baptized Mormon and an ordained elder of the church. What motivated him to make such an abrupt conversion to Joseph Smith’s new and controversial religion? Strang could have been seeking solace. He and his wife, Mary, had recently lost their eldest daughter to a brief illness—a tragedy that had come on the heels of their move to Wisconsin from their home in Western, New York. Strang was acquainted with the religion through Mary’s Mormon relatives in Burlington. One of them, Aaron Smith, accompanied him to Nauvoo.