Beaver Island’s King

Most of Strang’s colony took his monarchy and plural marriages in stride, but some objected. The price for disagreeing became exile from the church and the island—while the king confiscated critics’ property. Disaffected Mormons found they had plenty of allies in the Straits area, where non-Mormons (or Gentiles, as the Mormons called them) despised Strang. Anti-Strang feelings were fueled by competition over Beaver Island’s rich fishing grounds and abundant cordwood to sell to steamers. From the time the first Mormon families arrived on shore, they were harassed by the handful of Gentile fishermen and traders who lived on Beaver.

It wasn’t long before Mormon hatred spread to Mackinac Island where Strang’s colony was resented for its encroachment into fishing grounds. Indeed, the stage was set for a colorful feud—a renegade kingdom versus the rowdy, hard-living Irish and French-Canadian population of Mackinac Island. “The Irish never needed much of an excuse for a fight,” says Northern Michigan historian Steve Harold. “The fishing grounds were a ready excuse.” Strang quickly became a marked man, and once a posse from Mackinac Island chased him around the Beaver Archipelago for days.

Strang further goaded Gentiles with inflammatory rhetoric in his newspaper, the Northern Islander. And when a Gentile trader on Beaver Island was accidentally killed during a Mormon-Gentile feud, the Mormons cursed and threw stones on his grave each time they passed. Strang’s Doctrine of Consecration stirred up anti-Mormon sentiment even more. In religious terms, the doctrine explained how Mormons, as God’s chosen people, would inherit the Earth. In reality it translated into permission to steal everything from fishing nets to boats—a habit that earned the Mormons repute as Great Lakes pirates. While historians feel that Strang’s colony became the scapegoat for anything that was lost, stolen or destroyed around the Great Lakes, the Mormons clearly were guilty in some cases. And consider what the loss of a fishing net meant back in the 1850s when it was a basic tool of survival. “It could be fatal,” Harold says.

All, in all, however, Strang exacted his greatest retribution on non-Mormon neighbors through politics. Strang had under his control the largest voting block in the vast but nearly empty Michilimackinac County (stretching from southern Manistee County through Marquette in the Upper Peninsula). As such, he also had the power to decide elections. It wasn’t long before Strangites held all of their township offices and a number of county ones. When newly elected Mormon authorities began enforcing laws that curbed selling liquor to Indians, they caused an uproar in the straits where peddling firewater to Native Americans was tolerated.

Pleas from the straits’ Gentile community eventually reached all the way to Washington, D.C. On April 30, 1851, President Millard Fillmore sent the Naval ship the Michigan to arrest Strang and a group of his followers and bring them to Detroit, where they were indicted on charges of cutting timber on federal land, counterfeiting and obstruction of U.S. mail. Given that Strang’s followers actually purchased only about 1,000 of the 37,000-acre island and squatted on the rest, the first charge was obviously true. Evidence for the second was mostly hearsay, and the third—according to Van Noord’s meticulous sequencing of evidence—appears trumped up.

Eventually, the Mormons were all acquitted. Mostly, thanks to Strang’s well-crafted testimony, which convinced the jury that the prosecution’s real intent was to quell religious freedom. Strang also had the cunning to hire a brilliant defense attorney.

Article Comments

  • Lucky Guy

    I am interested in Beaver Island history