- 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
Beneath the seemingly tranquil surface of life on Beaver Island there were some fairly powerful currents of dissension. How deep these ran it is difficult to say, for this was a totalitarian society in which expressions of dissent were dealt with harshly. Marriage with Gentiles was forbidden; drinking tea, coffee, or alcohol was outlawed; the use of tobacco was forbidden; pantalets under skirts were required by law, and women who broke the law exposed their husbands to punishment. Even men’s clothing was regulated by law. And the punishments were of Old Testament severity, meted out with a lash made of beech switches toughened by heating and twisting. For example, for “lying, tale-bearing, and endeavoring to incite to mischief,” the culprit was stripped to the waist and lashed thirty-nine strokes.
King Strang’s harsh, autocratic rule and the deep enmity it engendered among some of the islanders would probably have been insufficient by itself to topple his kingdom. But Gentile antagonism on both the island and the mainland had been building against the Mormons from their first appearance on Beaver in 1847. As the Saints had grown in economic and political power, the number of incidents between them and the Gentiles had increased in frequency and gravity. The introduction of polygamy and the formal establishment of the kingdom had exacerbated Gentile feelings of hostility that were already nearly unbearable.
It did not help matters at all that the newspapers, particularly the Detroit Free Press and Detroit Advertiser and Tribune , found King Strang irresistible. They printed lurid—and largely false—accounts of Mormon sexual license, thievery, and political chicanery. Councillor GeorgeJ. Adams, a few years after Strang’s coronation, incurred the royal wrath by bringing a prostitute over from the mainland and passing her off as his wife: he was thrown out. He then spread stories, which the Detroit papers eagerly broadcast, of assassinations and torture and of a huge Mormon counterfeit mill operating in a cave in Mount Pisgah. During the spring of 1851 President Millard Fillmore, visiting his brother in Detroit, read of scandalous events on Beaver Island and decided to take action. He placed the U.S.S. Michigan , the first ironclad vessel built for the U.S. Navy, at the disposal of the U. S. District Attorney, George C. Bates.
Due process was observed by having the governor of Michigan request federal intervention. Then, armed with warrants charging Strang and most of his top officials with treason, counterfeiting, trespass, theft, and several other crimes—oddly enough, not including polygamy—the district attorney, accompanied by a marshal and a judge, sailed into Paradise Bay on the Michigan one night in May, 1851. The attorney, leading a body of sailors each armed with a Navy revolver and cutlass, proceeded stealthily toward Strang’s house, their way lit by a covered ship’s lantern. After stationing a boatswain at each end of the house, District Attorney Bates crept up the stairs until he found himself in “a long, low room, where wide berths, heavily draped with stunning calico, shielded beds like the berths and staterooms of steamers, which proved to be occupied by Mormon women four in a bed.”
The account of the raid on the seraglio by the intrepid D.A. appears to be mostly romantic nonsense. At no time did the king’s palace have a harem. And with Mary in Wisconsin, Strang in the summer of 1851 was living with the only other wife he had at the time, Elvira. When Strang was awakened, he coolly examined the warrants and shortly thereafter peaceably surrendered himself and thirty-one of his disciples. They were transported to Detroit on the Michigan , and Strang pleaded the defendants’ case before a jury often Whigs and two Democrats. In his closing statement to the jury, Strang, the lawyer turned preacher, made an eloquent speech in which he drew analogies between himself and Jesus. This had been the basis of his defense throughout the trial: that he and his followers were victims of religious persecution—as they indeed were. The jury agreed and acquitted them all.
Following the trial there were numerous instances of Mormon-Gentile friction, but none compared in violence to “the Battle of Pine River” in the summer of 1853. The trouble started when Strang tried to use his considerable police power in Manitou and Emmett counties to halt the sale of Indian whisky to the Indians in the vicinity of Pine River on the mainland—present-day Charlevoix. Pine River fishermen regarded Strang as an ungodly polygamist and a power-mad dictator who was trying to expand his empire.
On July 12, 1853, the Mormon sheriff of Emmett County, together with thirteen other Beaver Islanders, put in at Pine River on a peaceful mission: to issue calls for jury duty in the circuit court at St. James the following week. As they were leaving in two boats, the Pine River settlers opened fire on them from close range on the beach. The Mormons, six of them wounded, hastily pulled out of range; but before they had well started on their twenty-five-mile trip across open water to Beaver Island, they saw that they were being pursued by three boatloads of Pine River fishermen. For ten miles the chase continued, the Mormons managing to stay just beyond range of gunfire; then the fishermen began to close the gap, and bullets started striking the Mormon boats again. Incredibly, at this moment a BuffaloChicago steamer came along, and the captain took the exhausted and bleeding oarsmen aboard. The furious fishermen, helpless against the large vessel, turned around and headed back for Pine River.