King James Jesse Strang and the Mormon Pirates of Beaver Island

James Jesse Strang

James Jesse Strang

We recently posted about the Michigan State Senate passing a resolution which officially recognized “International Talk Like a Pirate Day”. (It appears that they nothing better to do, in a state with a gaping budget deficit, collapsing cities and failing schools.  Oh well.)  The only pirates that they appear to be honoring are the Disney variety that wear funny hats and say “Aarrgghh.”   This nonsense made me wonder whether or not the state senators were familiar with the history of the real pirates in Lake Michigan.  One fascinating band was said to be led by King James Jesse Strang from his base on Beaver island.

James Jesse Strang was the leader of a group of Mormons who split from the church not long after the death of Joseph Smith. After falling out with Brigham Young, Strang moved his sect to Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan where he reigned for six years as the crowned “king” of an ecclesiastical monarchy attracting upwards of 12,000 followers, until he was assassinated in 1856.

According to the newspaper accounts of the day, Strang’s group also practiced piracy on the lake and along the shoreline.  In the New York Times of October 10, 1885 there was an article headlined, “Wholesale Robbery by Pirates on Lake Michigan.”  It begins “The people along Lake Michigan, from here north to the Manistee, have been thrown into the most intense excitement by the operations of a gang of marauders, who are reported to be Mormons from Beaver Island and who have carried on their operations with a boldness, coolness and desperation rarely equaled in the the records of highwaymen.”  Attacking from a schooner and several Mackinaw boats, the bands burned sawmills and robbed stores along the coast. The article ends, “There seems to be no question as to the identity of the robbers or their hauling place.They are emissaries from King Strang’s realm, and the whole power of the State should be lent to ferret out and bring to justice the perpetrators of such bold crime.

An article roughly fifty years later in the NY Times describes the finding a burnt hull of a Strang boat, the Eclipse, on Beaver Island.  Titled – “Relic of  Pirate Band – Hull of the Eclipse, a Notorious Lake Vessel, is Found.”  The article goes on to say, ” the hull of the boat Eclipse, of which ‘Pirate King’ Strang of Beaver Island was captain half a century ago has been found…  Captain Strang ruled over the island with an iron hand and headed one of the the most desperate bands of pirates that ever infested American waters.

“It was the custom to sail forth upon the great lake and lie in wait for unlucky vessels that passed, capture the craft, and either murder the sailors or make them go tot he island and conform to the peculiar faith of the inhabitants which resembled that of the early day Mormons.  The whole story of the horrors of Beaver Island probably never will be written, but enough as been learned to show the reign of Strang was of almost heartless and treacherous nature……

“The Eclipse was captured by State officials,  after a bloody fight, in 1855 and the vessel was set afire. Nearly all of Strang’s pirates died fighting.

Strang’s end came in part because of women’s bloomers.

Beaver Island – Fisherman’s Paradise, Mormon Kingdom, Pirate Lair

One of the edicts he issued said that the Mormon women on Beaver Island had to wear bloomers. Two of the women refused to wear bloomers and Strang had their husbands flogged. In 1856, one of the flogged men- Thomas Bedford – was supposedly caught in bed with his business partner David Brown’s wife. A group of Strang’s followers seized Thomas Bedford and lashed him 79 times across his back. Bedford hotly resented Strang and his teachings and he freely shared his resentment. 

On June 16, 1856, the gunboat USS Michigan glided into the harbor at St. James – the town on Beaver Island named for James Strang- and Strang prepared to board the ship. As he walked down the dock, Thomas Bedford and several other men ambushed him and then ran to the ship. None of the officers or sailors aboard the USS Michigan attempted to help Strang. The USS Michigan steamed to Mackinac Island and the assassins disembarked without being arrested or ever being convicted of killing James Strang.

The mortally wounded Strang and most of his followers set sail for Voree, Wisconsin, two days later and Strang died at Voree on July 9, 1856. After Strang died, mobs from Mackinac Island and St. Helena Island converged on Beaver Island and drove Strang’s followers- about 2,600 people- off the island and confiscated their property.


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2 Responses to King James Jesse Strang and the Mormon Pirates of Beaver Island

  1. Great, lost history.

  2. Harry Dschaak says:

    I could read articles like this all the live long day… the voice of those who never survived an untimely encounter on the lake with a boatload of religious holier-than-thou’s was but a final gasp of air, but thanks to the author of this article, the gasp was heard…

    … and the legacy of King Strang in command of his Navy is duly noted. Credits are due.