- Historic Sites
For His Was The Kingdom, And The Power, And The Glory … Briefly
On a green island in the cold waters of Lake Michigan, James Jesse Strang became the crowned, polygamous ruler of a Mormon “empire”
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
John C. Bennett, general and prime minister, whose talent for mischief was not small, was also excommunicated and departed the scene with hardly a flurry. When he had broken with Joseph Smith he had written a series of scurrilous newspaper articles denouncing his fqrmer friends. This time he quietly drifted off to New England to raise chickens. Of Strang’s more flamboyant lieutenants, only Councillor Adams stayed on. The Brighamites ridiculed him for pursuing a twin career as actor and preacher, but the prophet tolerated not only Adams’ acting but his drinking and lechery, in return for notable services on behalf of the Strangite kingdom. Strang even defended Adams by asking the Saints, “Isn’t it true that no less a man than David danced naked before the daughters of Israel?”
In the spring of 1847 Strang and four Mormons from Voree visited the islands Strang had seen the previous summer. The largest of the group of a dozen, Big Beaver, is thirteen miles long and six wide. It has broad white sand beaches the length of its eastern shore and sand dunes and bluffs along its western side. At the northern end is one of the finest sheltered harbors in the Great Lakes. The island is in the midst of what was in midnineteenth century—and remained until the advent of the sea lamprey—one of the best fishing areas in the lakes. The land was fertile and well timbered. It was an ideal spot for a Utopian community.
At the appropriate time, Strang announced that he had been visited by an angel who instructed him to move his colony to “a land amid wide waters and covered with large timber, with a deep broad bay on one side of it.” Clearly this was Beaver Island; and evidently the angel knew that Indian claims had already been invalidated and that shortly the federal government would open Beaver and the surrounding islands for settlement. From 1848 on, the Mormons streamed from Voree to Beaver. They found the islands practically a virgin wilderness, and with industry, intelligence, and dedication they named the rivers, lakes, bays, and hills of Beaver Island with proper Biblical names; they cleared the fields and planted them, laid out a network of roads, and erected sturdy log houses. The church, the jail, the royal press, and the king’s residence were clustered along the shores of the fine harbor in a settlement they immodestly called St. James—the name it bears today. In fact, in many important ways the island has changed very little. It has approximately the same population as in Strang’s heyday: two thousand; the main road is called the King’s Highway; the highest sand dune is Mount Pisgah; the large inland lake at the south end is Lake Genesereth; the chief river is the Jordan; the shallow baptismal lake at the north end is Font Lake; and the splendid harbor, Paradise Bay.
Brigham Young found his New Jerusalem at the end of a two-thousand-mile trail, and as the world capital of Mormonism, Salt Lake City has since then prospered and multiplied despite its remoteness. James’s kingdom was far more accessible to the Mormon recruiting areas of the East and Midwest; yet it was equally isolated from the Gentile world, richly blessed with fertile fields, virgin forests, and superb fishing grounds; and it is as inviting now as it was a century ago. But today it contains not a single Saint.
What was fatal to Strang and his kingdom was the alliance between his disaffected followers—few as they were—and the hostile Gentiles who, even in northern Michigan, saw this tiny colony as a threat to the Republic, to orthodox Christianity, to conventional sexual morality, and to economic privilege—specifically, the right to use the island as a base for fishing operations and trading with the Indians.
Although the few Gentiles who occupied Beaver Island when the Saints began arriving were unfriendly, they were quickly outnumbered and outmaneuvered by Strang and his followers. Their unfriendliness hardened into resentment as they observed the Mormons rename the lakes, rivers, and hills on the island and treat them as their God-given inheritance. The Gentile trading post stood on Whisky Point, a hooklike projection of land that protected the harbor. It was aptly named, for a major part of Gentile business consisted of bartering whisky for fish caught by the Indians. The ultimate source of Gentile hostility to Strang, however, was not on Whisky Point but on Mackinac, the small island at the tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. A century earlier it had been the center of the fur trade for almost half the North American continent; then for a while it had served as a fuelling station for wood-burning steamers. With the fur trade a trickle of what it had been and the island’s timber all chopped down, Mackinac in the mid-nineteenth century existed largely on its past reputation as a trading center.
Strang was quick to perceive this. His paper, “Some Remarks on the Natural History of Beaver Islands, Michigan,” was published in the Smithsonian Institution’s Annual Report, 1854, and remained the definitive work for nearly a century. As a student of the island’s economy, he traced the barrels of whisky from the warehouses at Mackinac to the trading post at Whisky Point, where they were used to produce what was called Indian whisky: two gallons of common whisky or unrectified spirits were dumped into thirty gallons of water; red pepper was added to give it fire, tobacco to make it more intoxicating. For thirty years, Strang reported, the fish shipped from the rich grounds around Beaver Island had been paid for in large part with Indian whisky. It cost five cents a gallon to make and was sold to the Indians for fifty cents a gallon by the cask, twenty-five cents for a quart, or six cents for a drink. The boats that brought the whisky returned to Mackinac laden with fish.