The story of America’s last ‘king’ — and why his followers turned on him
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) – This past weekend, King Charles III joined the expansive and historic list of people to lead the United Kingdom, stretching back more than a millennium.
Stateside, our official ties with the commonwealth ended with King George III and the British defeat in the Revolutionary War. But George wasn’t necessarily America’s last “king”: A man with ties to Michigan claimed that title.
The story involves a remote Michigan island and the chaos within the Church of Latter-Day Saints in the wake of Joseph Smith’s death.
WHO IS JAMES JESSE STRANG?
James Jesse Strang, born in New York in 1813, was said to be a man of many talents. By the time he was 23, he had been admitted to the New York State Bar before going on to serve as a postmaster and the owner/editor of a newspaper.
But some historians have assigned him yet another occupation: con man.
Doug Gordon with Wisconsin Public Radio detailed Strang’s move to Michigan. He claims Strang was already “using people’s confidence” in New York when he “disappeared” from the state in the summer of 1843.
“Strang supposedly sold some land in Ohio that didn’t really exist. When the buyer came to western New York and learned that he had been the victim of a con, Strang faked his own death and left town in a hurry,” Gordon wrote.
Strang moved to Burlington, Wisconsin, approximately 600 miles away. While in the Midwest, Gordon says Strang had also spent time in Nauvoo, Illinois. The now-small city once rivaled Chicago as a growing area in Illinois. It was also a major hub for the Mormon Church.
By 1844, the once-athiest Strang had converted and was named an elder in the Mormon Church. After Smith was assassinated, Strang came forward with a letter — claimed to have been written by Smith — that Strang would be his successor.
Strang claimed that he had also received a vision appointing him the “seer, revelator and prophet” of the church. Also, much like how Smith was led to the golden plates that contained the sacred text of the Book of Mormon, Strang claimed he was led to a set of brass plates in Burlington.
“These plates were written in a language that only one person on Earth had the ability to read, thanks to a ‘miracle.’ That person was James Jesse Strang,” historian Miles Harvey told WPR.
Brigham Young and other church leaders denounced Strang as an imposter and expelled him from the church. But his claims still earned him a relatively large number of followers.
MOVING TO MICHIGAN
In the years following Smith’s death, Strang had moved his congregation to Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan and founded the city of St. James. After the move to Michigan, Strang allegedly found another set of plates known as the “Plates of Laban.” Among other things, the plates sanctioned polygamy and ordered Strang to undergo a coronation to be named King James I.
Strang’s first wife and their three children left the settlement in 1851. He married four more women and bore nine more children, four of which were born after his death.
The Strangites, as his followers came to be known, interrupted life in northern Michigan for many communities, not only upsetting many people with their different practices, but by taking over many prized fishing lanes and shipping businesses. Strang was also able to leverage his influence in the area to be voted in as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives, winning elections in 1852 and 1854.
Lissa Edwards with Traverse Magazine says Strang used that influence in other political arenas, as well.
“Strang had under his control the largest voting bloc in the vast but nearly empty Michilimackinac County (stretching from southern Manistee County through Marquette in the Upper Peninsula),” Edwards wrote. “As such, he also had the power to decide elections. It wasn’t long before Strangites held all of their township offices and a number of county ones.”
The newly elected authorities stirred up a lot of dissent in their communities, focusing the backlash on their faith. Strang’s religious zeal pushed it over the top.
“Strang’s Doctrine of Consecration stirred up anti-Mormon sentiment even more,” Edwards wrote. “In religious terms, the doctrine explained how Mormons, as God’s chosen people, would inherit the Earth. In reality, it translated into permission to steal everything from fishing nets to boats — a habit that earned the Mormons repute as Great Lakes pirates. While historians feel that Strang’s colony became the scapegoat for anything that was lost, stolen or destroyed around the Great Lakes, the Mormons were clearly guilty in some cases.”
Strang faced several lawsuits for his religious decrees, even drawing the ire of Washington D.C. A report from Michigan History Magazine explained how President Millard Fillmore asked the U.S. district attorney to seek several charges against Strang, including murder and treason. The “king” was able to beat the charges, further cementing the support from his followers.
There wasn’t uniform obedience, however. Strang regularly issued very specific decrees, including one that forced women to dress only in loose, knee-length smocks over “modest pantaloons.” When one woman refused to comply, Strang had her husband whipped as punishment.
That man, Thomas Bedford, became part of a group of disaffected followers that put together the plot to ambush and assassinate Strang.
On June 16, 1856, the U.S. steamer Michigan docked at the St. James Harbor. Later that day, the ship’s commander, Charles McBlair, sent a messenger to invite Strang to the boat. Around 7 p.m., Strang and the messenger arrived at the pier to enter the ship.
According to a newspaper report from the Northern Islander, Bedford and Alexander Wentworth took the two by surprise on the pier.
“Two assassins approached in the rear, unobserved by either of them, and fired upon Mr. Strang with pistols,” the article read.
Strang was shot three times — twice in the head and once in the back — before the assassins fled to the steamer and claimed sanctuary. According to Harvey, several officers aboard the boat witnessed the attack, but no one tried to warn or help Strang.
“He was assassinated by his own people with the help probably of the U.S. government and the state of Michigan,” Harvey told WPR.
Edwards says that, following the shooting, McBlair took the two assassins to Mackinac Island. They were reportedly held in jail for a short period of time and given a brief hearing but were eventually released to a crowd of people celebrating the attack. The two men were never tried for murder.
Gravely wounded, Strang was taken back to his parents’ home in Wisconsin to try to be nursed back to health. He eventually passed away from his injuries on July 9, 1856. He was 43 years old.
Even with his death near, Strang refused to name a successor. He did, however, issue some final demands, including telling his followers to stick to their beliefs and to not resort to violence.
After the attack, many members of the surrounding community came to Beaver Island to drive the Strangites away. But instead of a fight, Strang’s followers agreed to leave, scattering across the Midwest and effectively ending the movement.
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