Strang’s Detroit victory only emboldened him. In the legislative election of 1852, his 165 Mormon votes were enough to win a four-way race and elect Strang state representative for the Newaygo District—a political bonanza that encompassed a quarter of the state and the entire Northern half of the Lower Peninsula.
Strang went on to serve admirably, earning himself grudging, even glowing, respect from all over the state. Among his accomplishments that session was authoring four laws that reorganized Northern Michigan’s political boundaries to Mormon advantage by dismantling Michilimackinac’s huge territory and organizing Emmet County to include Northwest Lower Peninsula and Beaver Archipelago. St. James was the new county’s seat.
But if Strang was gaining popularity off Beaver Island, back at the straits his new political clout was compounding tensions. On a July day in 1853, in what is now the city of Charlevoix, the emotions exploded into gunfire.
On that day, 30 scruffy, armed, Mormon-hating men faced off on the beach at the mouth of the Pine River (the channel that flows from what is now called Round Lake into Lake Michigan) against half as many Mormons gathered around the fishing boats they’d rowed from Beaver Island. The Mormons had come to summon three men to jury duty in St. James.
But the Gentiles were suspicious. Some were ex-Beaver Islanders who’d fled the Mormon takeover, then had their property confiscated by Strang’s church. Others were disaffected Mormons—including two of the three men the Mormons were summoning for jury duty. As tempers flared a gun went off—later both sides claimed the other fired first—and a gun battle ensued during which the Mormons fled in their fishing boats chased by the Gentiles. As the Pine River party closed in, the Mormons spotted a ship en route to Chicago. Hailing it down, they were pulled on board to safety. In the end, six Mormons and one Gentile were wounded. There were no fatalities.
Strang’s men might have lost the battle of Pine River, but that spring the Mormons won the war. Finding that the Gentiles abandoned Pine River (fearing arrest for their part in the battle), Mormon families moved in. Strang won his seat again in the election of 1855, when he beat the young Traverse City lumberman A. Tracy Lay. That term, the Mackinac representative persuaded the legislature to cut the Beaver Archipelago out of Emmet, include it in a new Manitou County, and thus separate the Mormons from mainland politics. But again, Strang ended with the advantage. The move virtually handed the Mormons their own court system, an unintended consequence that effectively shielded them from state interference. In addition, the handful of Mormon settlers at Pine River flexed their political muscle and filled positions in the new but virtually empty mainland township of Charlevoix—where they also christened what is now Lake Charlevoix, Lake Mormon and named an island in the lake Holy Island.
Besides Beaver Island and the Charlevoix settlement, a handful of Mormon families had put down roots on Drummond Island, to the east of Mackinac. Perhaps Strang was feeling kingly indeed. But there was trouble in the realm, trouble brought on by Strang exerting his authority where no wise man ought to tread. Though polygamy and thievery passed muster with Strang’s followers, when he attempted to dictate women’s fashion, his kingdom came undone.
In the summer of 1855 Strang ordered his female followers to adopt a costume of calico pants gathered at the ankle and worn under a knee-length dress. Strang’s later defenders have argued this reflected his progressive leanings on women’s rights (women’s rights reformer Amelia Bloomer introduced “the bloomer” as a liberating fashion in 1851). However, this was still a shocking recommendation to his followers, likely as unheard of as the prospect of going naked in public today, Harold says. During these Victorian times, women’s bodies were nearly completely concealed by their clothing and the revelation of so much as an ankle was scandalous. A handful of prominent island women rebelled, among them Ruth Ann Bedford, the daughter of George Miller, one of Strang’s trusted followers.