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The Bizarre Story of the Mormon Pirate King of Beaver Island

Apr. 17, 2023 at 1:00PM

I find it curious that few of us Milwaukee-area residents have heard of a polygamist Mormon pirate king’s flourishing 19th-century kingdom on Lake Michigan’s water and its violent downfall, but it’s high time to fix that.

The Great Lakes have an electrifying history of shipwrecks, natural disasters, indigenous cultures, and labor history. Yet—I think—when we spend our lives next to precious natural resources, we can sometimes underappreciate their beauty and value, losing wonder through routine interaction.

In this story of the Mormon Pirate King of Lake Michigan, my love for the Great Lakes intersects with another fascination—the psychology and power structures found within religious fundamentalism.

This fascination was sparked by experiencing its fanaticism firsthand as an undergrad at Wisconsin Lutheran College—a small liberal arts college affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). 

My time at Wisconsin Lutheran entailed four preposterous years at Wisconsin Lutheran College You can read about my dark and chaotic ethnography of a Christian Creationist College.

Sadly, our society's dark, manipulative parts echo from the past out to the present. 

The strange, violent, and tragic tale of James Strang’s Theocratic rule over Beaver Island is an essential chapter in the history of the Great Lakes. It’s also an essential story for understanding the roots of religious fundamentalism that still grip our society today.

credit: Wisconsin Lutheran College Office of Marketing and Communication

No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross of Cults: My Experience at Wisconsin Lutheran College

While I have progressed in my worldview, there was no great awakening to my backasswards environment, but rather my own shock, awe, and horror of unwittingly stumbling into the depths of robust social control, religious fundamentalism, and a whole mess of batshit craziness.

Power, Polygamy, and Prophets

The Church of Latter Day Saints’ tumultuous past has been in the public’s eye of late due to its precipitous expansion of followers and media exposure, such as Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer and a miniseries of the same starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, and Daisy Edgar-Jones documenting a brutal double homicide committed by members of a sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church) 

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer grippingly details the role that violence and manipulation have played throughout Mormon history. He views Mormon fundamentalism through the primary lens of the murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter by her brothers-in-law, Dan and Ron Lafferty. Like the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, Dan and Ron declared themselves prophets of God. 

They each absolved themselves from their heinous crime by tying their murders to the principles of blood atonement modeled by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Though heinous, the crimes of the Lafferty brothers are not complete aberrations in Mormon history. The writ of blood atonement has deep roots within both LDS and FLDS doctrine.

A high-profile campaign by Brigham Young to stoke fear of outsiders helped foment the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, in which a militia of what is now the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) killed 120 men, women, and, children.

The Netflix documentary brought further public attention to the FLDS with its docuseries Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, which centers around Warren Jeffs, the current FLDS president and prophet.

Warren followed in the footsteps of his father, Rulon Jeffs, who used his status and power as president and prophet of the FLDS church to marry an estimated 75 women and sire 65 children. According to Krakauer, Rulon married some of his wives as young as 14, placing him strongly in the pedophile category.

Warren reportedly took 78 wives throughout his life. Warren also shared his father’s sexual predilection for children. In 2011, Warren was convicted on two accounts of sexual assault of a child. Along with other FLDS leaders, Jeffs has also been alleged to have ritualistically raped underage girls (trigger warning for the link) in front of other FLDS leaders.

While James Strang was not as sadistic as the Jeffs, his story also illuminates patterns of the allure and abuse of power gained from religious authority.

James Jesse Strang

The tale of James J. Strang is one of the most unappreciated bizarre stories I have encountered. From controversially claiming succession of the LDS from Joseph Smith to an authoritarian rule as King of Beaver Island and everything in between.

Strang was born on March 21, 1813. He described his childhood as one in which he would spend “long weary days I sat upon the floor, thinking, thinking, thinking! … My mind wandered over fields that old men shrink from, seeking rest and finding none till darkness gathered thick around and I burst into tears and cried aloud, and with a voice scarcely able to articulate told my mother that my head ached.” 

Young Strang confides to his diary that he had ‘great designs,’ that he is filled with dreams of ‘royalty and power’ as great as any ‘Caesar or Napoleon - Russell Nye, Diary of James J. Strang

As you can see, by his own words, Strang was perhaps less than well-adjusted—with an immediate predisposition for delusions of grandeur typical of fundamentalist and cult leaders.

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

Joining the LDS Church, Strang curried favor with none other than its charismatic founder Joseph Smith—who personally baptized him. 

Upon Joseph Smith’s assassination in 1844, Strang declared himself the successor of Smith via a letter of appointment from Smith. Strang strengthened his claim by purporting that he was also declared successor under the hands of angels. 

The Strangites today even go as far as throwing shade at Brigham Young, who would lead many Mormons to Utah after Smith’s death.

Those with James Strang were the free-thinkers, the intellectuals, and the leaders. Many of the significant writers, publishers, and editors from the early church sustained James Strang … The people who followed Brigham Young were largely illiterate farmers and laborers from Great Britain where the twelve apostles had converted them, and only a small fraction of the church emigrated to Utah with Brigham Young in 1847. - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 

According to Joseph Smith, he was directed by the angel Moroni to find the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon. Strang also found his own plates, the Voree Plates, to further lend credence to his succession claims.

As Strang claimed, an angel of God revealed the location of the Voree Plates. The plates were supposedly buried by Rajah Manchou of Vorito, an ancient North American ruler.

The letter of appointment sent by James Strang
The letter of appointment sent by James Strang

Zion, aka Racine and Walworth

The letter of appointment of Strang as the successor of Smith is a source of controversy and ambiguity. It is debatable whether Smith wrote the letter and, if he did, what he meant. Regardless, Strang was confident that it declared him to be a living prophet and head of the church. 

The letter declared that Strang was to “plant a stake of Zion in Wisconsin … and there shall my people have peace and rest and shall not be moved, for it shall be established on the prairie on White River, in the lands of Racine and Walworth.” 

The historical significance of the letter of appointment is not insignificant. Rather, if Strang’s succession of Smith was regarded as canon, Racine and Walworth could have significance to the LDS church as Utah has today.

Despite being recognized as the new leader of the Mormons by the mother and brother of Joseph Smith, and many other notable leaders of the LDS, many Mormons eventually saw Brigham Young as the successor to Smith—still, Strang accumulated a significant following. 

Strang and his followers headquartered their upstart religious sect in the community of Voree, Wisconsin, where he had found his metallic plates.

As Mormons from surrounding areas relocated to Voree to follow Strang, conflict and high land prices forced the Strangites to relocate their headquarters to Beaver Island in 1848.

A Prophet-King is Crowned

While his influence extended to over 10,000 adherents, Strang relocated to Beaver Island—the largest island in Lake Michigan, located roughly 32 miles from the coast of northern Michigan.

Already possessing the self-proclaimed divine right of God, Strang took his religious revelations of convenience to the highest order. Strang’s followers coronated him, King of the Kingdom of God, on Earth. Beaver Island effectively became his kingdom.

Using his heightened power of the monarchy, Strang deepened his troubles with the gentiles—as Strang called non-Mormons—extracting tithes. He was even rumored to send his goons to drag people into the woods and have them whipped if they did not pay the levy. He seized a large portion of the taxes collected on the island.

Strangely enough, this is the only time in the history of the United States where a functional monarchy operated within its borders. Joseph Smith, in a similar fashion, spent his later days operating with a kinglike power within the various Mormon settlements he established. Smith embraced monarchical powers, seeking to establish what he called Mormon theodemocratic rule over the entire Earth. Under this so-called theodemocracy, people would govern under the divine rule of God.

Though ostensibly upholding theodemocracy, in practice, Smith operated with the authoritarianism of any good monarch or theocrat.

Advantageously, Strang had abruptly changed his views on marriage from staunch monogamist to devout polygamist—a core tenet of today’s FLDS followers. 

Strang would take five wives throughout his life, four of which he married during his reign over the kingdom on Beaver Island. Though unlike many of the polygamist marriages of the FLDS, all of Strang’s wives were at least eighteen years old. So I guess he was ahead of his time in the FLDS sense. However, he married his last wife in his forties when she was only 18, so while legal by today’s legal standards, Strang would also likely be a creep by today’s standards.

Strang’s wives mostly spoke positively of him, with his first wife Mary writing, “He was a very mild-spoken, kind man to his family, although his word was law—we were all honest in our religion and made things as pleasant as possible.” Unsurprisingly, this prophet-king-husband would view his word as law to his wives, and it also exemplifies the hierarchical power he derived from his religious leadership.

The War of Whiskey Point

Though charismatic and often kind to his immediate family, Strang was far from a benevolent ruler. Strang demanded that residents of Beaver Island follow his religious strictures while paying tithes to his kingdom. During his ascent to power, many non-Mormons moved from the island. Many of these so-called gentiles lived on the island long before the Strangite rule. 

As a core tenet of his authoritarianism, Strang banned the consumption of alcohol on Beaver Island. Shockingly, the prohibitionist dictates fueled the anger of Irish fishermen and other gentiles on the island. 

Strang accused the Irish of taking advantage of Native American fishermen in their trade, using counterfeit whiskey as currency. The veracity of his claims is hard to assess—however, they do track well with the manipulation typified of European colonialism in the Americas. 

Taking matters into his own hands—Strang ordered his followers to fire a cannon across a harbor at the unruly Irish—an event dubbed the War of Whiskey Point.

Showing that there were few limits to Strang’s rule, he had shown his temerity by executing a gentile for refusing to pay (illegal) tithes to his kingdom before the War of Whiskey Point. Succumbing that he was not one to be trifled with, many of the Irish fishermen and other gentiles left St. James and eventually the island. 

Sometimes all it takes to get your message across is one cannon blast and maybe a few gunshots for good measure.

Mormon Pirates Roam the Lake

Gaining confidence from the incident at Whiskey Point, Strang instituted a tax on residents for the crime of not-being a Mormon. It is not much of a leap of faith to see that the tax's aim was to increase the wealth of Strang and his followers but also to coerce the conversion or flight of the gentiles, reinforcing the strength of his kingdom and grip on Beaver Island.

The people along Lake Michigan, from here north to the Manistee, have been thrown into the most intense excitement by the operations of a gang of marauders, who are reported to be Mormons from Beaver Island and who have carried on their operations with a boldness, coolness and desperation rarely equaled in the records of highwaymen.” - New York Times

Strang and his followers grew ever bolder, leading to his status as not only a Mormon King but a Pirate King. Traveling in their schooner, The Eclipse, Strangites plundered and looted the stores and shops in neighboring towns on the Michigan mainland, drawing contemporary comparisons of highwaymen. The Strangites and their schooner full of loot are jarring in contrast to today’s polished imagery of Mormons existing as a cadre of Mitt Romney look-alikes.

Just as cults and other fundamentalist religious organizations regulate the information their followers consume, Strang founded the newspaper the Northern Islander and used it to publish propaganda defending his legitimacy as prophet-king.

How Far is Too Far … Bloomers?

In the presence of ever-growing discontent, Strang crossed the line in a most strange manner—his edict that women on the island had to wear bloomers. I guess it was his thing or something.

Women who refused the decree faced heavy-handed authoritarianism and social control. If women refused the bizarre sartorial edict, their husbands were flogged. Men also had their clothing regulated by force. Even petty crimes such as lying were punished with brutal lashings.

Marriage to gentiles, coffee, tea, and alcohol were all forbidden.

President Fillmore Can Handle No More

Tiring of Strang's piracy and religious zealotry, furor against his crown continued to ferment. 

Resentment permeated beyond Michigan all the way to the White House. The “Mormon Trouble” of Beaver island garnered the ire of President Millard Fillmore. At Fillmore’s behest, the Attorney General of the United States issued orders to begin prosecution of Strang for charges ranging from tax irregularities, delaying mail, counterfeiting, and cutting timber from public lands. 

A US Naval gunboat was dispatched along with a District Attorney and US Marshall deputies to arrest Strang. In May of 1851, one hundred Strangites were brought to Michigan for prosecution.

Strang used his charisma, eloquence, and previous experience practicing law to defend himself and his followers in the courtroom in a midsummer trial. Strang leaned heavily on a defense centered around the religious persecution of the Strangites.

Shockingly, Strang succeeded. Public sympathy garnered from perceived heavy-handedness from the government has continued to protect FLDS practices from prosecution, even in recent years.

Back in mainland Michigan, resentment for the authoritarian fundamentalist grew. As his power coalesced on the island from his legal victory, he used his status as prophet-king to become an elected member of the state legislature in 1853. Strang was later elected to a second term and was a productive member of the state assembly. 

Increasingly tyrannical, Strang’s pirate henchmen terrorized the waters surrounding the island—reportedly plundering numerous vessels, murdering sailors, and kidnapping others—forcing them to join the Strangites. 

State officials, appropriately fed up by the holier-than-thou pirates, sank The Eclipse.

Assassination and Aftermath

Though Strang was a practicing polygamist, sexual impropriety was not tolerated among his followers. Obviously, if you want to have multiple sexual partners, it is best to start your own kingdom, declare yourself prophet-king, and let everyone know God told you it’s actually at his request to have multiple wives— it was the only righteous path. All else was just plain sinful, hedonism.

Fatefully, one of the victims of Strang’s violent authoritarian was a resident of Beaver Island named Thomas Bedford.

Bedford was flogged (I found myself taken aback by the Strangites' obsession with whipping people) by a Strangite mob for sleeping with another man’s wife. Bedford, seething with the desire for revenge, conspired with another local named H.D. McCulloch to give Strang his comeuppance, who was also on the outs from the Strangites. Once in Strang’s inner circle, McCulloch was banished for drunkenness and other improprieties. These two revenge-seeking men joined forces with Alexander Wentworth and Dr. J. Atkyn, enemies of Strang living in Mackinac. 

The four men hatched their fateful assassination plot.

King Strang was aware of rumors of an attempt to take his life. However, he wrote of these threats: “We laugh with bitter scorn at all these threats.” Apparently, the prophet's skills of prophesying the future were so-so.

On June 16th, 1656, Strang’s tyrannical rule over Beaver Island came to a bloody end.

Along with a mob of 40 men—including many local Irish fishermen—Bedford and Wentworth ambushed Strang as he was about to board the USS Michigan. The two men shot Strang in the back, cheek, and head. After severely wounding Strang with the gunshots, Bedford brutally pistol-whipped the king, increasing the severity of his injuries. The mortally injured king and his followers returned to Voree, where Strang would eventually succumb to his wounds on July 9th.

The assassins were later fined $1.25 in a mock trial and set free. They were treated as heroes back on the mainland. 

While Strang lingered on his deathbed, his kingdom was dismantled.

On July 5th, a drunken mob arrived on a flotilla to attack the Mormon population. Armed men drove Mormons off of the island at gunpoint. 

All 2,600 Strangites of Beaver Island were forcibly removed with only the barest of personal possessions. Historian Byron M. Cutcheon has called the forcible deportation of the Strangite community “the most disgraceful day in Michigan history.”

There are a few practicing Strangites today. His fledgling kingdom has faded from public memory as a strange footnote in the tomes of American history. Wisconsin—like present-day Utah is the land of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young—may be known as the curious land of people whose religious beliefs stemmed from a tyrannical Mormon pirate king.

About the author

Alexander Nikolai

Making Milwaukee weirder one day at a time.