Beaver Archipelago, Pt. 1: "To the Kingdom of Strang"

May, 2013.

Of the significant islands in Michigan's waters, those of the Beaver Archipelago loom large in lore. I have wanted to go there for some time, and in May of 2013 my chance came. Years back I had gone to the Manitou Islands, and some years after that I came across a book written in 1990 by a history professor from University of Cincinnati, R.H. Ruchhoft, entitled Exploring North Manitou, South Manitou, High and Garden Islands of the Lake Michigan Archipelago. The tales told in this book of life as it was over a century ago bewitched me, as did seeing the author's small black & white pictures of the decaying ruins of the mid-1800s settlements. Ruchhoft spoke of the ruins in a way that made it sound like they would not be around for very much longer, installing a sense of urgency in my desire to get there. I already knew a little of Garden Island's mystical past too, so this just sweetened the pot.

Getting to these islands is either tricky, or easy, depending on your point of view. Of the Beaver Archipelago, only Beaver Island (MAP) itself is inhabited, but as a result there is fairly regular ferry service from the mainland at Charlevoix, starting in spring. The other islands have either never been populated, or haven't been in about 50 years. In my initial research, I found the website of a man named Jon Bonadeo, a Beaver Islander whose living is partially made by chartering out to the islands with his boats for wildlife researchers, lighthouse buffs, and hikers such as myself. There is no other way to get to the outer islands of this archipelago unless you have your own boat, which must be seaworthy enough to navigate in open waters. There are shallow reefs between the islands making for sharp currents, and seas can get quite high even in good weather.

I spent a few years doing a little reading up on the veiled history of these mysterious outer islands, whetting my appetite and building excitement for the eventual journey. I decided that out of all of them I wanted to see Squaw Island, Garden Island, and High Island the most…Squaw had an abandoned lighthouse, Garden was an ancient Indian burial ground, and High had once been home to a religious cult (plus its tall dune had the best view). Finally timing and finances lined up, and I contacted Captain Bonadeo for an early-season trip out. I initially hoped for an end-of-April trip, but he informed me that while it was possible to go to the islands then, there was still two feet of snow there, and there would still be ice, making beach landings tricky. I decided to push it out until mid-May.

I left out of Detroit at about 6am and arrived in the affluent harbor resort town of Charlevoix (MAP) at about 10:30am. It contains many examples of a style of architecture invented by local native Earl Young, sometimes called "Hobbit Houses." His work is not found anywhere outside of Charlevoix; here are two examples (not the one on the left):

The ferry Emerald Isle was scheduled to leave at 11:30am.

Beaver Island is actually quite large, about 55 square miles, and has plenty of roads. I could've brought my car over but I decided not to, being that I'd be spending most of my time on the outer islands anyway. I can always come back for a more detailed explore of Beaver Island at a later date, since it is relatively easy to get to (but compared to the untouched wildernesses of the outer islands this cottage island holds little for the explorer). The ferry ride out across the lake lasts about two hours in good weather. One can also charter a small airplane flight to the island's airstrip, but again, I decided to take the much cheaper nautical option.

Beaver Island has a deep history itself that is extremely fascinating on its own, but I shall not attempt to delve too deeply into it here; for the purposes of this story I will focus mainly on the histories of High and Garden Islands.

In order to properly contextualize my story however, I must at least sum it up. Beaver Island is the largest island in Lake Michigan and was of course originally populated by the native Anishinaabe people, and their ancient ancestors. It is said that people of the ancient Hopewell Culture had a solar calendar erected on the island to help govern their agricultural activities. It was made up of boulders placed in a pattern spread out across the island much like the standing stones of Stonehenge or Callenish Circle, which dates as far back as up to 5,000 years, though this figure is the subject of much debate. It can be safely said however that the calendar and the ancient gardens those elder people kept are at least 1,000 years old. The boulders' locations are not really publicized, but they have been documented by university scholars. Most are spread out, hidden deep in the woods of the now almost completely reforested island. How anyone pieced together that they might form a pattern is beyond me…perhaps it was first noticed a century ago when the island was logged?

In the early 1800s, Irish settlers came to the islands of the Great Lakes to eke out a living much as they did in their homeland by fishing the bountiful waters around Beaver. In 1848 a man named James Strang, an outcast prophet from the Mormon Church, chose Michigan as the place to lead his small flock away from the main body of Mormons, who chose Utah.

Strang is one of the most colorful characters in all of Michigan's history. He set up a colony on Beaver Island, was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1853, and formed what at the time became known as Manitou County, which embraced most of the islands off the northwestern Mitten of Michigan. The county seat naturally was his colony on Beaver Island, the town of St. James, which is still the only town on the island today.

Strang then declared himself a polygamist, and the "king" of his people, the "Strangites," which is when things began to get weird. He even had a coronation ceremony, with a real crown, a scepter, robes, regalia, the whole bit. Though he only claimed rule over his own followers, he sought domination over everything he could and made a lot of enemies, especially the Irish fishermen who were on Beaver Island before his arrival.

Hostilities occurred between the two groups, often resulting in violence, and eventually the Irish mostly fled Beaver Island to surrounding islands rather than deal with King Strang and his bullshit. Strang also managed to piss off his own followers whenever possible, sometimes ordering floggings for transgressions of Strangite law. A jerk of this caliber was just looking to get a cap in his ass, and that cap came in 1856.

Not only were his enemies out for him, but it has been rumored that the federal government was looking for a piece of him as well, even orchestrating his assassination. He was probably the only person to ever establish an independent monarchy within the bounds of the United States, which is, well…clearly against the U.S. Constitution, heh.

Though again he only technically claimed to be a monarch in a religious, and not a political sense, he was still illegally seizing property and revenue, and screwing up the fishing industry in a big way with his shenanigans, an industry which by the 1880s was so important that Beaver Island was the largest supplier of fresh-water fish consumed in the entire nation. He had been ordered to federal court in Detroit by President Millard Fillmore three years prior on charges of counterfeiting, treason, and other crimes, but somehow walked. Probably because he was politically connected.

In any case, that summer the U.S. Navy's gunship USS Michigan pulled into St. James Harbor, and invited his majesty aboard. As King Strang walked the dock two men approached and shot him from behind, pistol whipped him savagely, then boarded the vessel—whose officers watched the entire incident from the deck without interceding. The Michigan then departed for Mackinac Island, where the two assassins were allowed to disembark.

Strang's assassins were given a mock trial at Fort Mackinac after which they were fined $1.25, then cheered by the locals. Strang died of his wounds a month later, at which time a "drunken mob" of Irish from Mackinac Island and St. Helena Island immediately descended upon Beaver Island to drive the remaining 2,600 Strangites out, stealing their possessions and forcibly herding them onto commandeered steamers bound for other states.

This effectively spelled the end of the Kingdom of Strang. Manitou County became reputed as a lawless territory and was soon abolished, at the calling of Governor Bagley.

The Beaver Islands became part of Charlevoix County, while the Manitou and Fox Islands became part of today's Leelanau County. Beaver Island was 100% Irish again, with fishermen coming back from the surrounding islands, and from County Donegal back in the old world. The common tongue on Beaver Island in those days was not English but Gaelic, and it earned its nickname as "America's Emerald Isle," which it retains to this day.

Logging also came to the islands once the mainland had been clearcut, but by the 1940s both this and commercial fishing ceased to be profitable in the archipelago, and almost all of the islanders left for the mainland. Only in recent times have people really started to move back to Beaver Island, mostly retirees and rich cottagers. Central Michigan University (my alma mater) has maintained a biological research station there for many years, and I remember seeing their Beaver Island posters on the walls of Brooks Hall whenever I cut through it during foul weather.

The peaked dune silhouettes of the North and South Fox Islands (MAP) in the distance off the port beam came into view about halfway through the journey:

Those islands have interesting stories of their own…both are uninhabited wildlife refuges, and there is no ferry service to them. South Fox contains an abandoned lighthouse while North Fox was once the Michael Jackson-style retreat of a rich philanthropist from Ann Arbor who cleared an airstrip and would take young boys there to molest them in the privacy of the absolute wilderness. His child porn ring / boys' camp was busted up in the 1970s. Stay tuned to see if I ever figure out a way to explore those islands.

Anyway, legends persist that during the Strangites' sudden eviction from Beaver Island by the barbaric mob of irate Irishmen, some of the followers hid King Strang's stash of gold by submerging it in Fox Lake on the southern end of Beaver Island. I had also read on the internet that (according to Carl A. Norberg's article "Lost Treasure of the Beaver Island Mormon Colony," in the Fall 1987 issue of Inland Seas) they may have also hidden the "royal treasury" by burying it 30 paces from a "large tree" on High Island, where I would be going shortly. The tree was "easily noticeable in 1856 from its prominent location overlooking the island's northeast harbor," and it was said that the gold had been hastily interred there while his followers were transporting their wounded king to the safety of Voree, Wisconsin, where he later died.

Part of the legend surrounding King Strang was that he claimed to be a seer who had communed with God, via having "discovered" three golden plates buried in Voree, which were inscribed with the last words of an ancient Native American named "Rajah Manchou." This was a hoax manufactured by Strang in order to install himself as the living prophet of the Mormon church (which of course didn't go over too well with the Mormon church, hence his self-exile on Beaver Island). Huh, sounds kind of reminiscent of the "Scotford Relics" hoax in Edmore, Michigan.

Whether the golden plates, known as the "Voree Record" are the same "gold" that his followers hid away is not clear, but the plates did exist, and according to one source, "disappeared" in the year 1900. Treasure hunters have sought to relocate King Strang's gold for 150 years. No news of it being found has ever surfaced.

The engines of the Emerald Isle throttled back as we glided into the crystal clear blue waters of St. James Harbor.

I could see the stony bottom even though the water was over 20ft. deep. The old Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse tower still stood on the welcoming outstretched arm of the bay.

The Central Michigan University Biology Dept. now owns the entire lighthouse complex, and recently turned the old boathouse into a fish hatchery.

Garden Island's coast was very visible off the starboard bow as well:

Here, safely within the harbor, you can see the mainland of Michigan's Lower Peninsula looming in the distance:

I scanned the row of old buildings and docks to see if I could tell which one was the home of Captain Bonadeo. I was scheduled to depart with him immediately upon arrival, so as to make it to High Island with daylight to spare. I stepped off with my pack and began walking down the street. It wasn't long before someone waved to me from a boat—I had found my man. Captain Bonadeo was just finishing fueling up and his buddy Fred helped me get my 50lb pack aboard. I'm not sure why it weighed so much this time, but it did. He said his boat, the Liberty, was 34 feet, but it seemed shorter to me. He also had a small old motorboat tied behind the cabin cruiser for landing, since none of the outer islands have docks. To make things more complicated, we would soon find out just how much more challenging making landings on these rugged islands would be with the drastically reduced lake level resulting from the recent drought.

Jon informed me that I was his first trip of the season. And there are no other such captains who charter trips to these islands, so therefore I would probably be the first person on the island since last year.

I somehow got the impression that Fred was Jon's new first mate, but in actuality Fred was a buddy from Grand Rapids who was up for a visit and decided to tag along to help out, despite being a complete landlubber. Watching the Laurel & Hardy antics of these two guys was the source of much entertainment as Fred would do or say something silly, and Jon would get all frustrated. Fred was also a bit of a talker, constantly pestering Jon with questions.

Within minutes I was back on my way out of the harbor into Lake Michigan on a course around the northern end of Beaver, bound for the eastern shore of High Island, some 13 miles away by boat.

Passing Garden Island off the starboard quarter:

We plied the waves of what Jon called the "Highway," which is the passage between Garden and Beaver Islands, where the fishermen most frequently operate. We were rocking pretty good, with spray frequently blasting over the foredeck onto the windows.

Fred had asked Jon how high he thought the waves were, and he answered two to three feet. A particularly big wave a few minutes later sent us hurtling and grabbing onto loose items shifting in the cabin, and I heard the ship's bell clang loudly. "How big was that wave, Jon?" Fred asked in his slow, farm boy way. "I dunno, four feet, Fred," Jon answered flatly. I had worn my thermals and a jacket, and it was still a wee bit chilly. It had snowed here only two days ago, and none of the trees had leaves yet, whereas down in Detroit they had been out for at least a week. Finally, the strangely humped profile of High Island loomed into view:

I began to get excited as I laid eyes on this mysterious new land from a distance…. What secrets lay sleeping in those hills?

As the waters changed from sapphire to emerald the waves subsided, and we came into the protection of the island's natural harbor. Fred went up on deck to set the anchor while Jon made ready the landing craft.

Well, here we were.

CLICK for part 2

Exploring North Manitou, South Manitou, High and Garden Islands of the Lake Michigan Archipelago, by R.H. Ruchhoft
Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State, by Willis F. Dunbar & George S. May

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