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Kingdom Forgotten: The Rise and Demise of a Mormon Island King

By Laurie Lounsbury

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Worth reading 😎

An imaginative treatment of a fascinating little bit of US history. The story could have been shorter, though it was enjoyable.

Synopsis

A self-proclaimed prophet and king named James Jesse Strang had it all – power, fame and royalty – at least for a while.

James Strang ruled over his flock of Latter-Day Saints on a remote island in northern Lake Michigan in the mid-1800’s, leaving behind a legacy of tyranny, piracy and polygamy.

With his tremendous ego and oratorical skills, Strang built up a community of over 2,500 Mormons and took political control of northern Michigan and its island inhabitants.

A clash of cultures soon followed as King Strang tried to impose his beliefs and laws onto both his followers and the non-believing, native islanders.

Kingdom Forgotten seamlessly stitches together the true events of James Strang's life with fictional characters that show what island life might have been like under Strang's rule. It is a story of kindness and killers; of ruthless pirates and innocent believers; of a Native American woman who had the courage to stand up to Strang, a man she both loved and hated; and it is the story of how one man’s craving for power and control over others proved to be his ultimate undoing.

When I picked up Kingdom Forgotten, I'd never heard of James Strang – and this little bit of history, turned into historical fiction, sounded fascinating. Who would have guessed that a Mormon rival to Brigham Young would set himself up on a Michigan island and appoint himself King of the surrounding district!


The opening of the book set the scene well, introducing the fictional characters of Lucy and local fishermen as well as the non-fictional character of Strang. I liked the way Lounsbury gave each person depth and roundness - there were few complete villains or angels, and the novel gives an insight into the thought processes of all its characters.


The novel slowed for me about a third of the way in, perhaps because there were too many people to keep track of, and not quite enough focus on the central 'plot'. Strang was presented as almost likeable at times, but that was hard to reconcile with the callousness and deceitfulness of his actions. I found myself longing for him to be kicked out of his territory, but that took a long time to happen. The writing style was slightly clunky, and perhaps for that reason the story didn't pull me in completely - so I never felt like I was fully 'in' the book, more that I was 'watching' it.


The story could be shorter and tighter, but overall I enjoyed reading about Strang and his poor, credulous, exploited followers, and I'm glad I now know so much more about this supremely odd part of American history.



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Synopsis

A self-proclaimed prophet and king named James Jesse Strang had it all – power, fame and royalty – at least for a while.

James Strang ruled over his flock of Latter-Day Saints on a remote island in northern Lake Michigan in the mid-1800’s, leaving behind a legacy of tyranny, piracy and polygamy.

With his tremendous ego and oratorical skills, Strang built up a community of over 2,500 Mormons and took political control of northern Michigan and its island inhabitants.

A clash of cultures soon followed as King Strang tried to impose his beliefs and laws onto both his followers and the non-believing, native islanders.

Kingdom Forgotten seamlessly stitches together the true events of James Strang's life with fictional characters that show what island life might have been like under Strang's rule. It is a story of kindness and killers; of ruthless pirates and innocent believers; of a Native American woman who had the courage to stand up to Strang, a man she both loved and hated; and it is the story of how one man’s craving for power and control over others proved to be his ultimate undoing.

May 1848

“You’re back,” Lucy said bluntly.

She didn’t mean for it to sound like a personal affront, but the initial look he gave her suggested he took it that way. She wasn’t judging the man who had just stepped off the dock, although she did take note of his short stature. She didn’t care about his formal, yet well-worn attire that was out of place on Beaver Island. His red beard could use trimming, but was still presentable. His close-set eyes were the color of a burnished copper half-penny, peering intensely from below a high forehead. His eyes met hers in a look that turned from hostile to amiable as quickly as thunder follows lightning during a nearby summer storm. She wasn’t naïve; she didn’t think it was her keen mind that changed his attitude. She didn’t keep her brains tucked in the front of her calico dress, where his gaze had momentarily flickered.

The man staring at Lucy was easily recognizable. Living on a remote island in Lake Michigan, there weren’t that many faces to see, and she rarely forgot a single one of them.

She’d first seen the man one year ago, when he landed with a small, straggly bunch of people from Wisconsin. She’d watched him help his people set up tents and build little shanties on the south shore of Paradise Bay. There couldn't have been more than six or eight of them, all dressed similarly in drab, practical clothes made of coarse brown muslin and wool. The women had frightened yet determined looks on their faces while they stoically organized the smattering of belongings they'd brought with them: cookpots, iron frypans, butter churns, copper kettles, wooden spoons, blankets, beeswax candles and lanterns. The men dug right into the business of pitching tents, gathering firewood and hunting for food. When they first arrived, Lucy had seen this man depart four days after his arrival, leaving the rest of his fellow travelers to fend for themselves over the long, cold winter. She’d seen how they gazed – first at him, and then at the island – with a mixture of fear and faith.

“Yes, of course I’m back,” the man said with a touch of arrogance. “And might I ask who I’m speaking to?”

“Lucy. Lucy LaFleur. I own the boarding house over there.” She pointed north, where her two-story, whitewashed home sat overlooking the harbor.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. LaFleur. I’m James Strang. I’ve heard about your lovely home. I would be honored to have the privilege of staying at your home tonight, if you have a room available.”

“I do,” she said cautiously. His voice was a deep, rich baritone and he was using it now in a most cajoling manner. It was like listening to music that was lightly coated in weasel fat.

“Then I shall be up to see you shortly,” James said. “I just have to wait and gather my things after they’ve unloaded the boat.”

“Until then,” she said, and turned to continue on her way to McKinley’s store.

Lucy carefully picked her way around the muddy holes in the road, lifting her skirt a few inches off the ground to keep it dry. She stepped up the two wooden stairs to the porch; the gray, weather-beaten boards creaking with each step. When she got inside, she found Pete McKinley behind the counter, stocking shelves with cornmeal, flour and sugar.

“Afternoon, Lucy,” Pete said, shoving a strand of gray hair off his forehead. “What can I do for you today?”

“Afternoon, Pete. I need some lard, corn meal if you have it, sugar, and I think I’m out of coffee.”

“Coming right up.”

“Pete, what do you know of Mr. James Strang? He’ll be staying with me tonight, and I don’t remember much about him other than that curious band of people he brought to the island last year. Some religious thing, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Pete said. “Mormons. Driven out of Illinois, then persecuted in Wisconsin, so they say. Strang is apparently the head of their flock, and thinks Beaver Island is a good place to rebuild.”

“Did those poor folks survive the winter? I’ve not seen hide nor hair of them,” she asked.

“I believe they did. Made their way to Luney’s Point. Patrick and his wife took pity on them and helped them farm a piece of land. Set ’em up in those old, abandoned fur trapper cabins.”

“I’m glad to hear they made it. The winter of 1847 will definitely go down as one of the worst we’ve had.”

After gathering her goods, she stepped down from McKinley’s store porch and headed home. It was a short walk, but heavy mud tugged at her feet after the May thunderstorm they’d gotten the night before. Soon she was climbing the stairs onto the wide front porch of her home. Reflexively, she looked up and down the porch, imagining the children who should have been gathered there, playing dominoes or checkers, faces stained with blackberry juice. Antoine had wanted a very wide porch to accommodate a very big family. Lucy straightened her shoulders for the thousandth time and walked in the front door. Alone. Oh Antoine, she thought, why, oh why, did you have to leave me?

From the kitchen window, Lucy looked out at the lake, loving and hating it at the same time. Delicate ripples danced along the surface, courting its admirers. It was aquamarine near the shore, and then transitioned into indigo blue in the deeper part of Paradise Bay. But she knew all too well that the guileless calm could become a razor-torn canvas of raging fury in a matter of minutes, tossing ships here and there the way a child in the throes of a temper tantrum casts away playthings.

She stopped looking out the window and finished making supper for her new guest, who had made his way to her home after collecting his belongings from the boat that brought him to Beaver Island.

After wiping her hands on her apron, she carried a plate of food and set it down in front of James, who was seated at her kitchen table. It wasn’t her best effort for pleasing the eye, but it was perfectly fine food. The pan-fried whitefish, boiled potatoes and white bread looked a bit like misshapen white clouds on the earthenware plate.

James immediately started blessing his meal. Lucy had little patience for the tom foolery of Christian prayers, so she left him to his business and went back to tending the woodstove.

When he was finished praying, James spoke to her. “Could I bother you for some water?” he asked.

Lucy guessed it was thoughtless of her not to have brought him something to drink, but she just never knew what white men wanted. Some thought all water was poisoned, and would only drink beer, and others thought alcohol was poison and would only drink water. The latter category of men was in the minority. The water on Beaver Island was as pure as a spring leaf bud, but a lot of the people she met came from big cities where, she was led to believe, clean water was hard to come by. She brought him water in a copper mug and set it down in front of James’ knife point. You can call me a heathen, a red skin, a squaw, or whatever you choose, but you can’t call me ill-mannered, she thought to herself. The McKinleys had done a fine job of teaching her the manners and mannerisms of white folk after Antoine disappeared. She had spent a month in anguished grief after losing him, never leaving the house, barely eating. The McKinleys had brought her food and nursed her through the worst of her grief. Then they gently suggested she use her large home as a boarding house for visitors to the island. Without a husband to support her, she knew she needed to do something to provide for herself. And, she thought at the time, having other people around might take the edge off her hollowness. The McKinleys then taught her everything she needed to know about the expectations of white people.

With that training in mind, Lucy thought perhaps she should make polite small talk, so she asked the odd little man what brought him back to Beaver Island.

 “I was visiting family in New York; now I’m on my way back to my home in Wisconsin.” Something about the way he said it made her think it was mostly true, with a bit of a lie tucked in there like the clean tip of a dirty handkerchief poking out of a pocket.

Sensing her skepticism, he added, “I was also doing mission work for the Latter-Day Saints.”

She’d heard of the new religion that was building momentum in parts of the country. She read newspapers whenever she could get her hands on them.

“So you’re a missionary?” she asked politely.

“I’m the new leader of the Latter-Day Saints,” he said, tipping his brow upward slightly. “I was rightfully chosen to be Joseph Smith’s successor. Brigham Young is the renegade impostor, dragging those poor, deluded followers across the country to some God forsaken wilderness out west.”

She was about as interested in Brigham Young and Latter-Day Saints as she was interested in the mouse droppings behind the kitchen cupboard. Actually, the turds interested her more – they could lead her to the rascally mice that were getting into her grain sack.

“So, where are you headed now?” she asked, not really paying attention.

“Home, to Voree, Wisconsin. A lovely place. It’s hard to imagine living anywhere else, but this place is calling out to me. Or, more accurately, I should say that God called me to this place.” His deep, coppery eyes, set so close together, now gazed very penetratingly at her.

“Pardon me?” she asked.

“Two years ago, I was traveling back to Wisconsin from Buffalo and my boat sailed past here. It was then that I recognized it as the place God had told me to seek for my people. An angel gave me a vision of a place surrounded by pristine waters, abundant with fish, a place of ample farmland, fields and forests. So here I am,” James said.

 “An angel gave you a vision? How does that work?” The things these white people came up with; it was astounding to her.

James appeared offended. “As I said before, I am the leader, rightfully named by the late Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to lead my people to a safe place where we can follow our doctrine and prosper in peace. As such, God, through his angels, gives me visions and tools to help me along the way.”

“I see,” she said, not seeing at all and caring even less.

“I don’t know if you do,” Strang said, unwilling to accept her doubtful look. “Back in Wisconsin, I was directed by an angel to take my flock to a place of rare beauty. As soon as I saw Beaver Island, I knew I’d found the place.”

“You mean you’re going to live here? Permanently?” She couldn’t imagine how this fragile-looking man could withstand a winter on the island. The only thing that looked sturdy on him was his head of wavy, dark red hair.

“Yes, permanently. And as we build our community here, we want to incorporate our culture with yours. I have always had great admiration for the Indian people.”

Lucy was doubtful about his proclaimed admiration for her ‘people,’ so she gave him no response. She hadn’t met many white men who admired Indians. Most of the white men she’d encountered were either trying to trick or kill her people. But she decided, in her usual pragmatic manner, that if he was going to be sending new people to the island, that meant more business for her, and she didn’t want to offend the person who would be bringing her new boarders.

After an awkward silence, James swallowed the last bit of fish from his plate. She picked it up and took it to the washbowl on the sideboard. Lucy looked out at the lake again. Still lovely and calm. But it was mid-May, and she knew it was quite possible to get a late blast of snow and sleet at that time of year. Weather on the island could turn from nice to nasty without any warning. Like her mother, she could sense when a change was coming just by facing the lake and letting the breeze brush against her face.

There was definitely a change coming to the island, and it didn’t feel good.

• • •


As Strang stepped off Lucy’s porch and looked out at the harbor, he remembered his trip to Beaver Island for the first time, two years ago.

That year, Strang had to scrounge passage on fishing boats and freighters. This year, he was coming back to the island in style after a very successful mission trip to New York. The Niagara was the newest of the palace passenger ships to steam from New York to Michigan, then on to Wisconsin and Chicago before heading back east. It had made its maiden voyage the year before. His pockets bulged with money donated to him by new converts to his Mormon faith. James was nothing if not an eloquent speaker who could move people to do things they wouldn’t normally consider, like donating their hard-earned money to someone who promised them a better life. Now he remembered well the thoughts he’d had of this place back then as he’d sailed in sight of it the first time.

“Divine.” Then a small smile came over him. “Perfectly divine. Divine Perfection. I must remember that for my next sermon.”

He knew it was going to be perfect long before he set foot on the island, when he’d seen it from the deck of a side-wheel steamer traveling from New York to Wisconsin. At that point, all he could see was a dot. A series of dots, actually, green and sandy; hardy little souls jutting from the deep blue waters of northern Lake Michigan.

The dots had names. Peculiar names to a man like James: Squaw, Whiskey, High, Garden, Gull, Trout, Hog and Beaver.

His description of Divine Perfection, as he thought of it, wasn’t based on the miles of hardwood trees surrounding him. They were essential for building dwellings, but he gave them no more than a passing glance. Nor was it based on the fishing boats lining the harbor, where men pulled vast nets of fish onto the shore. That would put food on the table and money in people’s pockets, yet they didn’t warrant more than a moment’s notice of his time.

It was the remoteness of it all that made it perfect.

Walking on the road that ran along the harbor, James could see his dream becoming a reality in this place. The harbor was deep and very well-protected, a horseshoe-shaped bay with a narrow entrance on the south side. It was an ideal stopping point for steamers that needed to take on cordwood, which was abundant on the island. Looking inland, he saw vast forests of pine, beech, oak, maples and birches. Dark, primordial areas were swampy and crowded with cedars. The forests gave way to fields that were ideal for farming. The beaches glimmered with unspoiled, fine-grain sand.

It was an isolated spot 20 miles away from the Pine River outpost, which was the nearest point on the mainland, which also meant it was 20 miles away from naysayers, doubters, persecutors who disbelieved him. Twenty miles away from the feckless and faithless who didn’t trust him to be the prophet of his people. This was where he would stake his claim for the title of Mormon leader. This is where he’d show Brigham Young that he had the better, brighter vision for the future. While Young’s followers were starving and freezing to death on their brutally long westward odyssey to the territory of Utah, his flock would be settled and thriving on Beaver Island.

The island was hardly well-developed. It had a general store, a cooper shop, trading post, a livery, and of course, a tavern. The spirits served in the tavern would have to go, James thought, but it could continue as a gathering place and purveyor of food for the Mormon bachelors who would no doubt follow James to the island. Young men would be fools not to pull up roots in the East and move to Strang’s island utopia, where he’d promised that everyone would be given free land by the church. He’d also promised that money-making opportunities were everywhere on the island. He promised widows and plain-faced young women that they would find a spouse and happiness here. No one would do without and everyone would prosper if they followed the Mormon rules according to Strang.

Following the rituals established by Joseph Smith, Strang had no difficulty recruiting new members. American citizens were hungry for a new religion. They had grown weary of the heavy robes of priests and the somber sermons of the Old World religions. They wanted something fresh and exciting that befitted the brave new world they lived in, and the Mormons delivered it in spades: Secret gold plates buried on a hillside in Palmira, New York, discovered by an innocent farm boy named Joseph Smith; an angel named Moroni who gave Smith sacred seer stones to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphics into English; a return of the gold plates to the angel Moroni, so that mere mortals wouldn’t be tempted to steal the valuable plates, thus leaving behind no tangible evidence with which to dispute Joseph Smith’s story.

Add to that the revelations and visions given to Smith by the angels, and the Mormon religion was intoxicating to Americans starved for a new belief. Strang picked up where Smith left off, creating his own tale of visions from angels and brass plates from an angel, buried in Wisconsin and discovered by Strang, that only he could translate. New converts to the faith loved hearing Strang’s stories about angels and revelations. It convinced them that they had joined the one true religion, because God spoke directly to his Mormon prophets.

As Strang wandered about Beaver island, reminiscing about his progress with the Latter-Day Saints, he accidentally ran into a strong young man who was bent over, emptying bilge water from his boot.

“Hey, watch where you’re going!” the man said.

“My apologies, my good man,” James said. “So sorry you got in my way.” James gave a quick tip of his top hat to the man he inadvertently jostled.

Feckin’ dandy, Will MacCormick thought to himself. I’m in your way? I live here! He watched as the stranger made his way slowly along the road, keenly observing activity around him.

Will went back to the boat to check it once more and make sure it was secured for the night. His catch had already been packed in salt. His gill nets were drying on reels in the mild sunshine.

“Willie, care for a pint with me at Cleary’s?”

It was Teddy Duffy, Will’s cousin and fishing partner, returning from the fish processing house. He was coated with a faint spray of salt.

“Don’t see why not,” Will said as he joined him.

The two men walked the short distance to Cleary’s and took seats at the bar, each ordering a pint from Roald Cleary.

“Did you get a look at the new fella who came off the Niagara?” Will asked his cousin. He’d seen Strang disembark the day before and head up to Lucy’s house. Even though Strang was short, there was something about him – the top hat, the dress clothes, the intense brown eyes – that made him stand out.

“Nope, wasn’t even around when the Niagara docked. What about him?”

“Some kind of self-important dandy is all. Ran into him a while ago. Or he ran into me, truth be told.”

“Probably is a dandy if he’s traveling on the Niagara,” Teddy said. “Maybe one of those rich land speculators. Doubt if he’s doing anything here except waiting for the Niagara to refuel.”

Ted and Will engaged in a spirited debate with Roald about the coming summer season. Roald was positive it would be a short, cool summer due to the early and frequent calls of the katydids.

“That’s malarkey,” Ted said. “It’s going to be a long, hot summer. I heard the toads at Barney’s Lake singing like mad.” Will just sat back and smiled complacently. All that mattered to him was that summer was coming, and that meant warm weather for fishing.

The two men finished a few more pints before wobbling out of Cleary’s. As the sun set behind them and lit up the harbor with deep pink light, they caught sight of Tom Bennett’s boat, riding low in the water and listing to one side. It looked like the lines tying it to the dock were the only things keeping it from sinking.

“Bennett better fix that boat of his before it keels over,” Teddy said.

“I’d better get home before I keel over,” Will replied.

About the author

Laurie Lounsbury is a national award-winning journalist and editor who spent most of her writing career covering northern Michigan. She currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she sings in a girl group dance band with great enthusiasm and exceptionally mediocre talent. view profile

Published on May 14, 2019

Published by Blue Foot Creative

150000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Historical fiction

Reviewed by

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