The Assassination Of The First King Of America

“Kings are the slaves of history.” —Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

In A Nutshell

America’s only kingdom was formed on June 8, 1850, when Mormon convert and leader James Strang declared Michigan’s Beaver Island to be his kingdom, where he would rule over his followers as “King of the Kingdom of God on Earth.” The island wasn’t just inhabited by his followers, and he succeeded in driving most of the natives out within the first few years he “ruled” there. Many of his policies proved unpopular, such as the idea women that should wear bloomers instead of skirts, that polygamy was law, and his insistence on holding all political offices on the island. After the US government failed to remove him from power, a group of assassins finally did.

The Whole Bushel

James Strang was born in Scipio, New York, in 1813. He delivered the mail, worked at the local newspaper, entered law school, and served as a Baptist minister. All pretty normal stuff for the time, and a relatively standard start to a life—not the type you’d expect to end with a gang of assassins.

When Strang married the woman who would become the first of five wives, he got his first exposure to Mormonism from his wife’s sister, who was married to a Mormon named Moses Smith. Strang converted in 1844, and was tasked with finding new places for Mormon settlements. Joseph Smith, who was for all purposes the father of Mormonism, was killed a few months after he recruited Strang; that’s when things seemed to really go off the deep end for the new recruit.

According to Strang, he knew the moment Smith was killed. He knew because that was the same moment he was visited by an angel who named him “to rulership of the Saints on Earth.” Strang also said that Smith had told him that he was to be his successor in the Mormon church and had even written him a letter saying so. Other church elders saw it for a forgery and excommunicated him for his troubles.

He wasn’t about to take that lying down and began a campaign directed at Brigham Young, stating that the other Mormon leader needed to stop his plans to move the congregation to Utah and present himself to Strang for a trial.

Young ignored him, even when he established his divinity by leading a handful of his followers to a tree and telling them to dig. They did, and they found strange brass plates that had been buried there, accepting that Strang must be guided by God to find such a thing.

Strang managed to build his own following, however, and in order to do so he needed to go back on one of his core teachings. Contrary to popular Mormon beliefs, Strang had always preached that polygamy was a bad thing. Once he went back on this—and married four more women over the course of the next few years—he began to gain more followers. Those who had originally followed him because they agreed with his one-wife rule ultimately left, and many went on to be instrumental in forming the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Strang needed a place for his new order to be headquartered, so he moved his congregation to Beaver Island in Michigan in 1848. Conflict with the locals started almost immediately, coming to a head over Strang’s suffocation of whiskey trade onto the island. To prove his point, he ordered a cannon be fired into the crowd of locals that had gathered to protest his policies.

The US government didn’t take lightly to the established monarchy, and in 1851 Millard Fillmore ordered the gunboat Michigan to the island, along with a US marshal and arrest warrants. Strang went on trial for federal offenses like interfering with the delivery of the mail and counterfeiting; he defended himself, however, and walked away a free man.

Dr. J. Atkyn had been on Beaver Island since 1850 and was a constant thorn in Strang’s side. Atkyn was well known for being something of a drifter, approaching local gentiles and offering to spy on them at the same time he proclaimed his love for Strang, his work, and Mormonism. Strang rebuffed him again and again, and finally tensions came to an end on June 16, 1856, when Atkyn, along with four other island men, shot their king. He lingered for a month before dying on July 8.

Ironically, in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of daguerreotypes, Atkyn had set up a studio on the island. One of his subjects was James Strang, and one of the only surviving images we have of him was taken by his assassin

Show Me The Proof

The Society for Strang Studies: Who was James Jesse Strang?
Michigan’s Mormon King Photographed by One of His Assassins (daguerreotype photo)
James J. Strang papers: A Guide to the Collection