The Great Lakes were formed more than 10,000 years ago, by glaciers moving across North America. The giant sheets of ice carved the land we know as Michigan into our familiar mitten-shape—and when they melted, they wrapped their waters around thousands of islands dotting the perimeter of this pleasant peninsula.
Today, the Great Lakes are home to about 35,000 islands, ranging from tiny Pismire Island (2.5 acres) to the massive Isle Royale (over 200 square miles). Clocking in as Michigan’s third-largest island is one with a history that you definitely want to know about: Beaver Island.
Beaver Island: America’s Only Kingdom
You might know Beaver Island as a quaint summer getaway in northern Lake Michigan. You can rent a cabin in town, go fishing, and enjoy its expansive green wilderness. While life there seems pretty relaxed these days, the island has a rocky past.
When Ottawa Indians migrated to Beaver Island in the 1700s, moving westward and away from European expansion, they found signs of previous inhabitants. Some Beaver Island artifacts date as far back as 1,200 years, but not much is known of these first Beaver Island natives. What is known, however, is how life for the Ottawa changed when French traders, trappers, and missionaries began to visit in the early 1800s.
By 1850, more than 100 settlers had moved to the island’s northeastern bay. They started thriving lumber and fishing industries, and the region was a popular stop for ships—for a brief time, it even rivaled Mackinac Island as a trading port.
Among these settlers was a small group of mormons, led by James J. Strang. After Joseph Smith’s assassination in 1844, followers of the Church of the Latter Day Saints were divided regarding who would be Smith’s successor. While the majority of mormons would ultimately follow Brigham Young to Utah, others followed Strang across the Midwest. These “Strangites” eventually settled in Beaver Island. With his rule “divinely stated” by two mysterious brass tablets that had been, according to LDS teachings, pulled from the ground, Strang appointed himself king of his church. Crowned by his followers in an elaborate ceremony (complete with a red robe, shield, scepter, and shiny crown), he would briefly lead the only kingdom ever established on US soil.
King Strang in 1856. Photo: Miles Harvey
While his rule was theoretically over his religion and not the island itself, Strang often exerted power over those not in his church. Once, when a violent skirmish broke out after a group of fishermen questioned his power, Strang fired a cannon into the trading post where the fishermen were located. By the early 1850s, Strang’s monarchy drove most non-Strangite settlers off the island, and Strang used the monopoly to rule with an iron fist. He took multiple wives, and polygamy became common practice among the islanders.
In 1853, Strang ran for and was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives. He ran again in 1855, and was reelected to the seat. While in office, he worked to create a new county—Manitou—and declared St. James, Beaver Island as its seat. (Manitou County was abolished by the state of Michigan in 1895.)
Strang’s strange rule came to an end in 1856, when two women refused to follow his dress codes, Strang had their husbands flogged in punishment. Not long after, the men conspired to shoot their king—who hung on for a month recuperating in Voree, Wisconsin before succumbing to the gunshot wounds. A few days before he died, a mob of people from Mackinac and St. Helena Islands sailed to Beaver Island and forced the roughly 2,600 Stangites onto steamer ships, which dumped them along the shores of Lake Michigan.
For nearly 20 years, the island went largely ungoverned, as most county offices had been held by Strangites. Beaver Island was eventually incorporated into nearby counties in the 1870s.
Beaver Island then became inhabited by Irish immigrants, who nicknamed it “America’s Emerald Isle.” They lived peacefully and thrived off of a robust fishing industry until the 1940s—and their legacy can still be found there today. Many of the island’s locals are the descendents of those early Irish settlers, and their annual St. Patrick’s Day party…well, let’s just say it’s enough to make anyone wish they were island royalty.
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