The United States faced growing turmoil in the mid-19th century as technological change, abolitionist and religious movements and westward expansion altered American society. Out of the fracture and fervor emerged an unexpected king: a lawyer named James Jesse Strang. He claimed he was a prophet and the new head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, moved his followers to Beaver Island and declared himself the monarch of a Mormon “utopia” in northern Lake Michigan.
Journalist and author Miles Harvey delves into Strang’s story in his new book The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch.
After the death of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, in 1844, Strang was one of several figures who claimed they were his successors, Harvey said. Strang brought his followers to Beaver Island and established his monarchy there, though the island was already inhabited by Anishinaabe peoples and some European settlers. Strang used violence to force out those who opposed him, Harvey said.
Making a monarch
A couple hundred people attended Strang’s coronation, which was enhanced with handmade costumes, a throne made of moss and stage props, Harvey said.
“It’s easy to take this stuff sort of like as a joke, but I’ve got to say, the federal government didn’t take it as a joke. President Millard Fillmore, about a year after Strang crowned himself king, was so worried about this quasi-independent kingdom on U.S. soil that he sent in the U.S. Navy’s first iron-hulled warship to invade the island and bring Strang to justice. What’s interesting is that although Strang was put on trial in Detroit in 1851, he and his people were found innocent on all charges,” Harvey said.
“Strang just had this incredible charisma, and he also had the ability to fool people,” Harvey said. He said Strang basically ran a pirate colony out of Beaver Island.
Strang’s contradictory kingdom
Harvey said Strang was a complicated character, known for violence, stealing from coastal towns and running a horse theft ring. But he held some progressive views on women’s rights and was an abolitionist.
“In the newspaper [Strang] ran off Beaver Island, I noticed an article one day by a guy named Fred Douglass, which was Frederick Douglass … all about how sometimes, theft is okay when you’re an oppressed person. And I just thought, this is just so Strang. It’s both this kind of progressive abolitionist view--‘I’m going to publish Douglass’s piece’--but for his people, it must have been so self-justifying: ‘Yeah, we’re the oppressed. We get to steal that stuff,’” Harvey said.
Beyond Beaver Island
Harvey said the United States faced widespread economic, political and cultural turmoil during Strang’s ascension to power, which took place a few years prior to the Civil War. It was an unstable environment that made persuasive leaders like Strang compelling, he explained.
“It’s a time when truth is just very malleable, and there aren’t a lot of firm things to hold onto,” Harvey said. “Strang came in and offered confidence, and people could trust him, although they couldn’t trust him. So he absolutely thrived in that era, like a lot of people like him--swindlers, before and after. He was able to take advantage of this very unstable time and make people feel that he had simple answers to complex questions.”
For more on Strang and Beaver Island, check out Michigan Radio reporter Sarah Hulett’s account of her journey to the island a few years ago.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.