By Remington Whitcomb
LAKEWOOD – Believe it or not, if you are from Chautauqua County, you are from the place where the only king in American history called home.
On Wednesday night, Roger Gilbert offered a presentation of the life and times of James Jesse Strang: a man from Hanover who went on to become a Mormon prophet and declared himself king of Beaver Island, Mich. in the early 19th century.
Gilbert began by explaining why history is exciting to him.
“When you were in high school and your teacher told you to get out your history book, you most likely groaned,” said Gilbert. “This is because we were forced to memorize all those dates and places. History shouldn’t be that way – history should be fun. All those people in your history books had sterling personalities just like us, and were real people with real problems. And just like some of us, they also had some qualities which were not so sterling. The past few months have been a hard time for all of us with (all the tragedies which occurred). Tonight, you should forget all of that and have some fun with local history. Listen to the antics of this one man, and appreciate the comical and tragic nature of James Jesse Strang.”
And the story of J.J. Strang goes something like this:
Jesse James Strang is a man from Forestville, New York who, according to sources such as Smithsonian Magazine, went on to become the only man known to be crowned as king of a territory within the geographical boundaries of the United States of America.
At the age of three, Jesse James Strang and his family moved to Hanover, New York from Scipio, New York, where they purchased a farm on Walnut Flats. During his youth, Strang claims that he was often teased by his contemporaries and ignored by his teachers, who labeled him an imbecile. Strang had chronic health problems as a child and though he kept a very calm demeanor for a child, he was far from an imbecile. To compensate for the lack of attention he received at school, Strang became an enthusiastic reader. Though he never states it himself in his journals, it is reasonable to conclude that Strang was almost completely autodidactic as a child.
During Strang’s childhood, he kept a number of journals which offer quite a bit of insight into his mind. These journal entries were filled with dreams of grandeur and royalty. Strang often talked about how one day he sought to rival the power Napoleon obtained. Strang even deliberated to himself within his journals about a plan to marry Queen Victoria, who was only twelve at the time of his journal entry. Had Strang lived out his life in Chautauqua County as an ordinary citizen, these journal entries could be written off as the playful imagination of a child. However, since Strang went on to do extraordinary things, it can be justified to claim that Strang was an extremely motivated and intelligent child.
At the age of fifteen, Strang’s father sent him to attend the Fredonia Academy where he became an excellent debater, a skill that he would undoubtedly use often to defend himself during his tenure as a Mormon prophet.
After his time at the academy, Strang moved to Randolph to teach at the school there during the winter session. After the semester ended, he moved back home and contemplated what he would like his career to be. After contemplating careers such as fur trading, land speculating, or a military career, Strang settled on law. In January of 1833 he began studying law with Esq. Fraizer of Silver Creek. He successfully passed the bar exam in 1836 and became one of 35 lawyers who lived in Chautauqua County at the time.
In 1835, Strang contracted smallpox and had to be nursed back to healthy by his friend Wealthy Smith. It seems that Strang’s illness and the time Wealthy was forced to spend with him while he was sick brought the two together. Wealthy and Strang functioned as a couple for a short time after Strang recovered, but he abruptly cut off correspondence with her and ended their relationship.
On November 20th, 1836, Strang married Mary Perce, who was his best friend’s sister. Strang and Perce began their marriage separated and remained in contact through letter before they finally purchased a home in Clear Creek in 1838. Later that year, they gave birth to their first daughter, little Mary.
In 1843 Strang packed up his family and moved to the Wisconsin Territory to live with Mary’s brother and Strang’s childhood friend, Benjamin Perce. Perce had moved west in 1838 and had family that joined the Mormon church.
Later that year, Strang’s daughter Mary passed away. According to the entries Strang made in his journal, the death of his daughter weighed extraordinarily heavy on his mind. It is speculated that the death of his daughter perhaps caused him to realize that life is short unpredictable, and that people are only given so much time in life to take what they desire. Perhaps Mary’s death rekindled within Strang his childhood desire for power and royalty. Less than a year after Mary death, Strang would make a claim to be the Mormon prophet succeeding Joseph Smith, Jr., and establish a Mormon kingdom on Beaver Island in Michigan.
BRIGHAMITE MORMONISM VS. STRANGITE MORMONISM
When Jesse James Strang produced a letter which stated that Joseph Smith, Jr. had appointed him as Smith’s successor as head prophet of the Mormon church, Brigham Young was outraged. Without ever even examining the letter, Young branded it a “wicked forgery.” Even though Young was absolutely correct and the letter was a forgery, it was still enough to win over the support of most of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s family and create a division in the Mormon church. Though followers usually chose to align with either Young or Strang depending on who they knew more closely, there were some differences fundamentally in the two sects.
To begin, the most obvious and perhaps decisive difference in the two sects was that Brighamite Mormons were allowed to practice polygamy and Strang, at the establishment of his sect, condemned polygamy. If a follower was already a polygamist and was unsure of which prophet to follow, this element could have made their decision relatively easy. I state that Strang condemned polygamy at the establishment of his sect because as time went on during his rule on Beaver Island, it seems that he eventually reverted to Polygamy. However, at the inception of Strangite Mormonism, polygamy was outlawed.
THE GENEALOGY OF JESUS
In the Catholic church, which is essentially where most of the ideology for the Mormon church comes from, it is believed that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. The angel Gabriel spoke to her and told her that she was carrying the son of the Lord, and that was the moment of conception. At the time of the immaculate conception, she was married to Joseph, however, Joseph was not the father, and the two had yet to consummate their marriage. This is the view which Brigham Young held and as a consequence the view Brighamite Mormons held as well. However, Strang believed something slightly different, that Jesus came in the flesh as the messiah. Strang pointed out that if Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, he could not be decedent of Abraham. Jewish genealogies are always kept by the male lineage. The apostles Matthew and Luke have Abraham and Joseph connected genealogically. Therefore, if Joseph is not the literal father of Jesus, his genealogy is meaningless.
RIGHTS OF WOMEN AND MINORITIES
During Strang’s tenure upon Beaver Island, it can be stated that he was quite ahead of his time with regards to how he ran his church. Though he ruled as a Theocratic Monarch, it seems he attempted to keep his kingdom as modern as possible, quite like an American Peter the Great. Within Strang’s church he not only accepted but encouraged African and Native Americans to settle upon Beaver Island and practice with the church, something which Brigham Young was reluctant to allow. Furthermore, Strang allowed women to preach as ministers within his church, which was outright forbidden by Young.
RELIGIOUS POLYGAMIST OR MAKING-UP FOR LOST TIME?
As a young man, Jesse James Strang had the opportunities to, for lack of a better verb, enjoy the intimate activities shared during a relationship with several women during his youth. Over the course of his life before he marries his first wife, he speaks about four women in his journals: Nancy Crawford, Mary Torrance, Wealthy Smith, and Mary Perce, who he eventually married. Normally four girlfriends over the course of a young adult’s life is nothing out of the ordinary, however the manner Strang speaks of these women in his journals is odd, to say the least. It seems that Strang was reluctant to participate in a “physical relationship” for one reason or another as a young man, however later in life he concurrently kept five wives. It seems strange, the dichotomy between Strang’s early relationships and his relationships later in life. This dichotomy begs the question, did Strang truly believe that polygamy was a practice which God had told him was appropriate, or was polygamy simply a vehicle for him to overcome his sexual frustrations earlier in life?
Strang’s relationship with Nancy Crawford is a strange scenario from the beginning and perhaps should not be focused upon too heavily, however it gives excellent insight into the frustrating nature of Strang’s youthful relationships. When Strang began his relationship with Crawford, he was only fifteen, while she was twenty years old and had already given birth to a child, though she was unwed. Strang’s father did not approve of this relationship and sent Strang to the Fredonia Academy to separate the two. Strang became very fond of Crawford and wrote in his journal that, “the attachment became so strong that I almost thought her a part of myself.” Though they kept correspondence through letters, surely not being able to see someone who was so important was an extraordinarily frustrating experience. Eventually, Crawford sought wedlock between the two, however Strang felt he was still too young. Unsatisfied with remaining unwed, Crawford left Strang to find someone more interested in marriage.
When Strang taught in Randolph during the winter semester of 1832, he wrote in his journal that a married woman by the name of Mary Torrance flirted with him quite often. He wrote in his journals that she playfully kissed him several times and he would have returned the sentiment had it not been for the consequences. He wrote in his journal that, “I really wanted to do other things and (I) believe I might have done it too by careful management if I had tried . . . but I am somewhat inclined to a certain evil which is easier avoided than corrected.” It seems that Strang’s conscience would not allow him to destroy a marriage because of his lustful desires. This means that as a youth, Strang still had respect for marriage as a monogamous institution. However, as a result of all of his frustrating experiences, perhaps he changed his mind later in life.
In 1835, Strang came down with smallpox and became very sick. During his illness, his friend Wealthy Smith came and cared for him. It seems likely that during the constant time spent together, the two took a liking for each other. After Strang recovered, the two seemed to be a couple, until Strang completely cut off correspondence. He leaves no justification for his actions in his journals, just simply that he had stopped correspondence with her. I speculate that perhaps he felt indebted to her for aiding him during his illness and he perhaps knew she liked him so he dated her out of sympathy. If this is the case, the entire relationship must have been a frustrating ordeal, for both Strang and Smith.
Finally, Strang eventually marries Mary Perce in 1836. Perce is the sister of Strang’s best friend Benjamin. The two begin their marriage separated and keep correspondence through letters, an ordeal which Strang surely was experienced in, until 1838 when they purchased a home in Clear Creek. Jesse and Mary have two daughters, little Mary and Myraette, before packing up and moving to the Wisconsin Territory in 1843. Shortly after moving, little Mary died, which weighed heavily upon Strang. Shortly after little Mary’s death, Strang made a claim to become the head prophet of the Mormon Church. Though he succeeded in creating his own sect of Mormonism, Mary never converted. Whether Strang felt betrayed by this, or whether he actually felt he was doing God’s work in allowing polygamy, it is understandable to think that by taking five wives, perhaps he was simply trying to make up for a lifetime of sexual frustrations.
DIVINE PROVIDENCE OR OPPORTUNITY?
To cement himself as the leader of the Mormon Church, Jesse James Strang furnished a letter which he claims was written to him by Joseph Smith, Jr. before his death. In this letter it states that Smith was able to foresee his assassination and upon his death wished for Strang to succeed him as head prophet of the Mormon Church. Obviously this quite a stir and drew the ire of hopeful successors such as Brigham Young. Genealogist Charles Eberstadt has found in his research that Joseph Smith, Jr.’s signature on Strang’s letter does not match Smith’s signature from other documents which have been preserved, which in his opinion proves that Strang’s letter of succession is in fact a fraud. Strang claimed that at the moment Smith, Jr. was assassinated, an angel visited him and told him he was to lead the Mormon people now. Though far-fetched, it seems that Strang may believe this vision actually happened and forged the letter in response. However, it seems more likely that Strang had wished for himself a position of power and royalty ever since he was young. The question remains, did Strang believe he was the God appointed successor of the Mormon Church, or was he simply a cunning opportunist?
The journals which Strang kept as a child are rather straightforward set of evidence that Strang has always wanted to obtain a level of power which would secure him into history’s annals. A few examples of these entries are:
“(I am sorry that I have not made much more progress for preparing for my) great designs for revolutionizing government and countrie.”
“(I ought to have been) a member of an Assembly or a Brigadier General before this time if I am ever going to rival Caesar or Napoleon, which I have sworn to (do).”
“My mind has always been filled with dreams of royalty and power.”
“O! If I was King of England I would try my fortune in the bloody field.”
“I should rather be the best hunter in an Indian tribe than a common place member of the New York bar.”
“I am eager and mankind is frail. I shall act upon it for time to come for my own benefit.”
“I have rejoiced in the sunshine and smiled in the shade of another year. . .It is gone. . . passed as others have passed their days who have died in obscurity. . .Curse me eternally if this be my fate. I know that it is in my power to make it otherwise.”
“O! the curse; to have done nothing for posterity.”
Though every young boy dreams of being a king at some point in his life, very few brainstorm ideas on how to attain that goal. Through these quotes directly from the journals he kept, it seems that Strang had spent his entire life looking for an opportunity which would allow him to live a life of power. While I do not believe that Strang moved from Chautauqua County to the Wisconsin Territory in hopes that Joseph Smith, Jr. would be assassinated and he could take over, I believe that when the opportunity arose he was and had been for quite some time, fully prepared to make his claim for greatness.
THE DEATH OF STRANG
Around 1851, the United States Government becomes involved in the affairs of Beaver Island. Over the years since Strang and his followers settled on the island, there was a number of disputes and general distaste between Strang’s followers and the non-Mormons living on the island. Eventually, word came to the U.S. Government that Strang’s followers were living on property that had not yet been purchased from the government. On April 30th, 1851, President Millard Fillmore authorized legal actions against the Mormons of Beaver Island, and the USS Michigan, featured above, docked on the island to try Strang against legal charges. Strang was found not guilty of all charges.
In 1856, Strang is summoned to the USS Michigan again to be taken once more to be tried, this time against accusations of fraud and robbery related to the 1854 state census on Beaver Island. While approaching the ship, Thomas Bedford and Alexander Wentworth shot and pistol-whipped Strang. Bedford and Wentworth were angry at Strang because of his decision to require all women on the island to wear bloomers. After shooting Strang, Bedford and Wentworth ran to the USS Michigan and asked for protection. The Assassins were taken to Mackinac Island, where they were greeted as heroes. Strang was taken by rail to his parent’s house in Wisconsin where he died of his wounds on July 9, 1856, six years and one day after his coronation as king of Beaver Island.