Although Beaver Island is known mostly today for its beaches, forests, recreational harbor and seclusion, at one time it was the site of a unique Mormon kingdom.
The island's association with Mormonism began with the death of Joseph Smith, founder of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most Mormons considered Brigham Young to be Smith's successor, but many others followed James J. Strang. Strang founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), claiming it to be the sole legitimate continuation of the church "restored" by Joseph Smith. His organization still exists today (though not on Beaver Island), numbering up to 300 adherents. His group initially settled in Voree, Wisconsin, setting up a community there which remains to this day.
Seeking a buffer from persecution and perhaps more isolation to increase his control of the group, Strang moved his followers to Beaver Island in 1848. The Strangites flourished under Strang's leadership and became a political power in the region. They founded the town of St. James (named after Strang), and built a road called the "King's Highway" into the island's interior that remains one of its main thoroughfares. The Strangites cleared land, built cabins, farms and other improvements, and sought to establish themselves as a permanent presence on Beaver Island.
Strang was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1853, and again in 1855. He also founded the first newspaper in Northern Michigan, the Northern Islander. During Strang's stint in the legislature, he made Beaver the center of a new county: Manitou County included the Beaver Islands, Fox Islands, North Manitou, and South Manitou islands, with the county seat at St. James. Manitou County was disestablished by the state of Michigan in 1895 (see below).
Once established on Beaver Island, Strang declared himself a polygamist, a practice which he had previously opposed. He had five wives and fathered a total of fourteen children.
In 1850 Strang proclaimed himself king, but not of the island itself. Rather, he claimed to be king over his church, which at that time contained most of the island's inhabitants. He was crowned on July 8 of that year inside a large log "tabernacle" built by his followers, in an elaborate ceremony that featured a crown (described by one witness as "a shiny metal ring with a cluster of glass stars in the front"), a red royal robe, a shield, breastplate and wooden scepter. The Strangite tabernacle and Strang's modest house are both long gone, as are the Strangite royal regalia, but a print shop built by his disciples remains—the only Strangite building left on Beaver. Today, it houses a museum dedicated to the island's history.
Strang and his followers often clashed with their non-Strangites neighbors on Beaver Island and adjacent areas. While claiming to be king only over his own adherents, Strang tended to exert authority over non-Strangites on the island as well, and was regularly accused of forcibly seizing their property and of physically assaulting them. Open hostility between the two groups frequently resulted in violence. Strangites were beaten by local ruffians at the post office, while Strang once fired a cannon at an unruly group of drunken fishermen who had threatened to drive his people from the island. Strangites held an increasing monopoly on local government, blurring the distinction between church and state in their "utopia".
While Beaver Island's would-be monarch held many progressive ideas (such as the conservation of woodlands), his autocratic style of rule came to be seen by many as intolerable. One edict, for instance, dictated the type of clothing Strangite women must wear (see bloomers). Two women refused and Strang had their husbands flogged, a task made easier after one of them was caught in the act of adultery with the wife of his business partner.
While recovering from their injuries, the husbands began plotting against Strang. On June 16, 1856, the United States naval gunboat USS Michigan pulled into the harbor at St. James and invited Strang aboard. As Strang walked down the dock, the two men shot him from behind and then ran to the ship. The boat pulled out and dropped the men off at Mackinac Island without arresting them. Neither was convicted of the crime.
After Strang died of his wounds on July 9, 1856, mobs came from Mackinac Island and nearby St. Helena Island and drove the Strangites (then numbering approximately 2,600 persons) off Beaver Island, confiscating their property. With the Strangites' departure, local government in Manitou County (including Beaver Island) all but ceased. Courts and elections were rarely held. County offices were usually unfilled, and the area acquired a lawless reputation affirmed by Michigan governor John J. Bagley in 1877 when he called for the county's abolition. A bill was accordingly introduced, but it did not pass. A new attempt in 1895 was successful, and the Beaver Islands became part of Charlevoix County while the Fox and Manitou islands became part of Leelanau County.