Beaver Island Mormons

Guest Commentary by Mitch MacKay

MICHIGAN HAD BARELY GAINED STATEHOOD when James Jesse Strang brought his colony of Mormons to the pretty little island in Lake Michigan.

Few settlers there at the time, the newcomers soon took over and routed most to the mainland as they built their first encampment, prospered, and Strang even achieved State Representative office while initiating polygamy as a norm for Mormon adherents.

This tale gets convoluted real fast in research development.  Conflicting versions emerge.

As we know, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the main Mormon bastion centered in Salt Lake City with satellites across the land/globe.

It was Joseph Smith who initiated the religion which is an offshoot of Christianity but with a different Bible as mainsail.

It’s based on prophesy and divine contact.


It’s in The Book of Mormon but this is not so unusual because Hebrew and Christian Bible Testaments are filled with miracles.

It wasn’t Joseph Smith who made it to Utah like Moses leading the Jews toward Israel; that mission was left to Brigham Young of the 20 Wives.

And James Jesse Strang?

He was run off Beaver Island, killed by estranged followers Gandhi-style in 1856.

And Smith?

He was killed in Illinois while in jail (1844). See?

This gets weird.

So how does this affect Michigan?

The chronicle A HISTORY OF THE GRAND TRAVERSE REGION (1883) can be found in libraries and online wherein several chapters are dedicated to the Mormons of Beaver Island.

After the death of Joseph Smith, Strang migrated, supposedly as abdicate-Smith-appointee leader (there’s a preserved letter), to the Michigan island with followers and after some islanders and mainlanders alike stormed the colony and forced their removal Strang was murdered in Wisconsin.

Core narrative is to be found in this superannuated book as to the development of the Northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan which renegade Mormons chose to encamp upon.

Pine River, the settlement now known as Charlevoix, was the major destination for many pilgrims associated with the pioneering of the greater area including the many small towns slightly inland accessible by this inlet from Lake Michigan, also rivers, imminently by railroad; in Strang’s day Northern Michigan incursion was almost entirely by boat.

That sect of Mormons was ejected by mob rule in the 1850s after Strang’s industrious attempt at founding a colony through banditry and civil shyster taxation and heavy-handed exegetical simony extortion tactics, perhaps some form of insanity explaining his wont of proclaiming kingship over not only his flock but all “gentiles” encountered wherever he settled.

The immigrant peoples already in Northern Michigan were not inclined toward another king after having recently dispensed with one in Great Britain, France, Holland, Scandinavia and sundry, the diaspora then being multiple in origin.

The colony on Beaver Island had constructed a viable harbor (St. James!) with homes, businesses, a printing shop, church, the array of community services then considered sophisticated.

The only problem was James Jesse Strang himself.

He who would be King was a despot.

This is hardly unusual in the annals of history but Michiganders were having none of it.

In fairly short order the Mormon congregation was dispersed with little more than the clothing on their backs, babes in arms, shipped by lake to points south, primarily Chicago, where all trace is lost but for apocrypha of trekking to Utah to merge with the larger congregation.

Those mobs driving them off Beaver Island are presumably ancestors of many residents now though no precise genealogy is extant.  J. J. Strang was hardly an exemplary member of the Mormon Church and is dismissively considered a radical exile to this day.

There exists a monumental cathedral in Detroit, THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER DAY SAINTS.

It is not immediately known though doubtful that any mention of Strang is heard of or published there.  Joseph Smith remains the prophet of the assembly, Brigham Young the courier and founder of the Utah matrix, THE BOOK OF MORMON the apostolic Bible of the faith.

Photos of Strang depict a RASPUTIN the Mad Monk visage but that was not unusual in that day when most men wore full beards.

There being no known effigies or markers to his name or church, negligibly coexistent he remains in esoteric history book mention.

That his given names were inversions of JESSE JAMES probably hadn’t helped him much nor his family name suffix STRANGE.

Sometimes a person gets the onomatopoeic designation just right or close enough.  He was a strange outlaw.

But the Church lives on, as exemplified by the Romney family of Michigan and lately of anywhere the political climate is exigent.

Evangelical people tended to be on the move though now pretty much stable congregations.  In one case a Strang[e] journey.