James Jesse Strang: Prophet of the Wisconsin Frontier

By Anne Morrissy

On September 13, 1845, a Burlington lawyer and converted Mormon named James Jesse Strang led four men he called his “disciples” to an oak tree “about one foot in diameter” on a high bank on the south side of the White River, between modern-day Lake Geneva and Burlington in Spring Prairie Township. He directed the followers — Aaron Smith, Jirah B. Wheelan, James M. Van Ostrand and Edward Whitcomb — to dig under the tree, into earth the men later testified “had the appearance of having lain undisturbed for ages.”

A bout three feet underground, the men discovered a flat stone covering a case made out of baked clay. Inside the case, they found three brass plates featuring an etching of the prairie on which they stood and what they later described as a “mysterious inscription:”

…a man with a crown on his head and a scepter in his hand, above is an eye before an upright line, below the sun and moon surrounded with twelve stars, at the bottom are twelve large stars from three of which pillars arise, and closely interspersed with them are seventy very small stars. The other four sides are very closely covered with what appear to be alphabetic characters, but in a language of which we have no knowledge.

According to Strang, who offered to translate, the plates contained a “full account of the ancient people called Mormons” and also included instructions from the murdered Mormon leader Joseph Smith that Strang himself was the “true and worthy successor” to lead the Church of Latter Day Saints, or Mormon Church.

The story of how James Jesse Strang attempted to effect the relocation of the Mormon Church to Walworth County, Wisconsin, rather than Salt Lake City, Utah, is now a nearly forgotten chapter in our local history. But for a few years in the 1840s, Strang’s Mormon congregation in Spring Prairie Township presented a significant and sometimes controversial presence on the freshly homesteaded frontier.

JAMES JESSE STRANG, FUTURE PROPHET

By the time Strang arrived in this part of Wisconsin at the age of 30, he had already tried several professions: schoolmaster, journalist, postmaster, Baptist minister, temperance lecturer and lawyer.

He was born in Cayuga County, New York, where he met and married his first wife, Mary Perce. In 1836, Mary’s father and brother left Cayuga County to settle in the newly opened frontier of the Wisconsin territory, staking one of the earliest claims in Walworth County on Section 36 in Spring Prairie Township.

James and Mary Strang, along with their young children, followed in 1843, living with Mary’s brother following the death of her father. They had inherited some of the homesteaded land in Spring Prairie Township in her father’s will; this was the property where Strang eventually directed his followers to dig up the plates and which he ultimately used to establish a community of Mormon followers.

Strang’s ascendancy through the Mormon Church had come at a rapid pace. Shortly after his arrival in the Wisconsin territory, Strang began traveling to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Mormons, led by Joseph Smith, had relocated after a conflict with the state government of Missouri. On February 25, 1844, less than one year after arriving on the frontier, Strang was baptized into the Church of Latter Day Saints by Smith himself in Nauvoo. Just one week after that, Smith’s brother Hyrum went one step further, declaring Strang an Elder of the Church and tasking him with establishing a branch of the Mormon Church in his new home in Wisconsin.

“GARDEN OF PEACE”

Strang returned to Spring Prairie and began preparations to establish the community on about 200 acres of his wife’s inherited property there. The land spanned part of the White River, including what is now Highway 36, and was described as a particularly beautiful and fertile section of homesteaded land. He named the community Voree, which he translated as “Garden of Peace.”

However to the south in Nauvoo, peace was rapidly declining. Three months later, in June 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered by a mob hostile to the Mormons in Illinois. Hearing of the Mormon leaders’ deaths, Strang rushed back to Nauvoo, where he met with the surviving members of the Church and produced a letter reportedly from Joseph Smith postmarked just days before his death. The letter prophesied the murders and named Strang as Smith’s rightful successor and leader of the Mormon Church. Strang’s claim of succession was just one of several made in the wake of Smith’s death; the most significant claim was made by Brigham Young. (Young declared Strang an impostor and a forger and ultimately excommunicated him.)

The months following Smith’s death were a chaotic time in the Mormon Church. The individual Mormon families at Nauvoo had a choice to make: which successor would they choose to acknowledge and follow? Although the majority chose to follow Young out west, settling in Salt Lake City, a handful chose Strang and followed him north to Voree, where they joined the small community he had recruited throughout the spring.

LIFE IN VOREE

Much of what we know about life in Voree comes to us from Wingfield Watson, a disciple of Strang’s who eventually returned to Walworth County and gave an interview about his experiences toward the end of his life in the 1910s. According to Watson, Strang ordered his disciples to plant a physical stake in Voree, an actual “Tower of Zion” — a wooden post 8 feet high and 19 inches in diameter — and to begin construction of what he intended to be a vast stone temple covering two full acres. A stone quarry on the property provided all of the building material for Voree.

In addition to building these religious structures, Strang’s followers also built homes, “mostly tiny board cabins over dugouts on the hill,” according to modern Strangite historians, although some settlers built more permanent frame or stone houses. They dammed the White River for water power as part of the stone quarry excavation effort. Because there was no bridge over that section of the river at the time, Strang’s followers operated a ferry and charged “Gentiles,” or non-Mormons, 25 cents per ride. They used the river to baptize new members into the Church and took advantage of the higher ground on the south bank of the river for use as an open-air auditorium in the warmer months while they worked to build the temple, a project which by all accounts was slow going.

Reports vary widely as to how many people ultimately resettled in Voree. Strang claimed he frequently preached to as many as 2,000 worshippers, but locals claimed the settlement contained closer to 300 people, which was still a sizeable community in the early days of frontier settlement. New arrivals to Voree stayed in a stone building called “The Tavern,” where they received food and temporary housing free of charge. A strict system of tithing — down to the eggs from the hen houses — made this possible. However, Strang outlawed coffee, tea, liquor and tobacco from Voree.

LOCAL OPPOSITION AND INTERNAL DISSENSION

When Strang led his disciples to unearth the brass plates in late September of 1845, he had already received the first of several visions, or “revelations.” Once the plates were discovered, the information he claimed they contained became the basis for a text he called the Book of the Law of the Lord. He installed a printing press in one of the stone buildings on the property and began printing copies of the book as well as a newspaper of Mormon news he initially named the Voree Herald. The first issue was printed in January 1846.

However, anti-Mormon sentiment was rapidly increasing among the nearby non-Mormon homesteaders. According to The History of Walworth County, published in 1882, Strang’s “conduct and conversation had grown so overbearing and insolent, and his practices so grossly deceptive and iniquitous” that another early settler began publishing a rival newspaper devoted to debunking Strang’s claims. Internal dissension plagued the Strangite Mormons as well. Several of Strang’s most prominent Mormon supporters quickly became disillusioned with his leadership and left the group. After two years of work, the walls of the temple he commanded his followers to build were only a few feet high.

LEAVING VOREE

By 1847, in the face of increasing local friction, Strang claimed to receive another revelation that led him to send out scouts to identify a new location for his settlement. He ultimately chose Beaver Island, near the Straits of Mackinac in Lake Michigan. In 1849, the remaining settlers of Voree packed up their homes and traveled overland to Racine, where they boarded ships for the journey. The Voree settlement remained, effectively abandoned.

After leaving Wisconsin, Strang’s story continued in dramatic fashion. After loudly denouncing polygamy, Strang claimed a new revelation embracing the practice of taking multiple wives. He promptly married one of his 19-year-old followers, though he was still legally married and living with Mary. This prompted Mary to return to Wisconsin. Over the next six years, Strang married three more women.

In addition, Strang was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives, started the first newspaper in northern Michigan, became a nature correspondent to the Smithsonian Institute, declared himself a Mormon king on American soil and nearly started a battle with federal troops over the sovereignty of Beaver Island. By 1856, his increasingly despotic actions had turned even his supporters against him, and several of them conspired to murder him. In June, two of his followers shot him in broad daylight with several witnesses present, but were never charged with the crime.

Slowly dying from his wounds, Strang requested to be reunited with his first wife Mary, who had returned to Walworth County and was living in a stone cottage on the site of the former Voree settlement. With the help of two of his newer wives (the remaining two following shortly after), Strang undertook what must have been an excruciating journey back to Voree. Mary attempted to care for him, but he died on July 9. Unbeknownst to him, while he was lingering on his deathbed, “Gentiles” from the Michigan mainland had robbed all of his followers on Beaver Island, placed them on ships and evicted them. Some of those followers, including Wingfield Watson, eventually returned to the former Voree settlement as well.

AFTER STRANG’S DEATH

Strang was initially buried in the small Voree cemetery. When the land was sold to a new owner years later, one of Strang’s daughters (he had a total of 14 children with his five wives) returned to move his grave to the Burlington cemetery. Today, very little remains of this nearly forgotten chapter of local history. The land where Strang attempted to establish a Mormon community to rival Brigham Young’s is made up of picturesque and privately owned farmland.

Most of the structures that comprised the settlement of Voree are gone as well, with the exception of a few stone buildings along a road that is still named Mormon Road, on the border of Walworth County and Racine County. The Burlington Historical Society has erected markers to commemorate the site’s role in history. A handful of Strangite Mormons, estimated between 50 and 300 people depending on the source, still practice today across the country.

For more information about Voree, including directions to the memorial marking the settlement’s location, contact the Burlington Historical Society at 262-767-2884 or visit www.burlingtonhistory.org

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