The Society for Strang Studies
founded in 2000 to facilitate research into the life and accomplishment of James Jesse Strang



What is the SfSS?

The SfSS is the ‘Society for Strang Studies,’ a group of people who are interested in the life and work of James Jesse Strang (1813 – 1856.) The group was initially organized as the ‘Strang Writers Group’ in mid-2001; after a conversation on Beaver Island between Bill Olson, founder of the Jackson Harbor Press on Washington Island, and Bill Cashman, director of the Beaver Island Historical Society, Bill Olson began to design, create, and circulate a series of e-mailed newsletters to a handful of people known to have an interest in Strang.

For the first three years Bill Olson simply added to his mailing list the e-mail address of anyone who was wanted to receive the newsletter, which typically contained a paragraph or two about each new ‘member’ and information about any project on which they were working, or just contemplating. Questions began to be raised through the newsletter about what the future might hold for the group. Should it have a more formal organization? Should it incorporate? Should it seek non-profit status? Should it require dues? Should it seek to undertake projects that require significant effort and funding? Should it apply for grants?

These questions could not be answered through the newsletters, so the group decided to meet face-to-face on Beaver Island, the site of Strang’s former colony, to discuss them in the spring of 2004. Here is a report on that conference from the Beaver Beacon:

Strang Writers enjoy Beaver Island

The Strang Writers Group's late-May conference on Beaver Island was quite a success, drawing people from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Evergreen Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Denver, Lansing, and Harbor Springs, as well as locals Rod Nackerman, Frank Solle, Phyllis Moore, Phil Becker, Sharon Nix, Robert Cole, and Bill Cashman. Ideas about what made this controversial figure tick flew fast and furiously during several presentations on Friday and Saturday, leading up to a casual round-robin reading of John Baldwin's sweeping play, Strang! Perhaps the one most applauded was Robert Cole's description of Strang as a narcissistic exemplar of Borderline Personality Disorder, heavily dependent on feedback from his closed community to sustain his self-imposed identity as prophet and civic leader–a judgement that did not diminish his fascination for those who follow characters who live and think large.

Besides having a good time, the ‘Strang Gang’ took care of some business, agreeing to meet next June and again on June 16, 2006, the 150th anniversary of “the shots heard “round the fishing grounds.” The 2006 event will be given national publicity, and could produce an interesting crowd. Other provisional decisions included the adopting of a mission statement, the creation of a web site, and the moving toward a more formal status in order to qualify for potential funding to help with such enterprises as publications and the staging of Strang events and plays.

The Gang congratulated Vickie Speek for having had her scholarly book, 12 years in the making, picked up by Signature Press for publication next spring. She read the conclusion to her book, after SWG founder Bill Olson entertained the group with a selection from his work-in-progress in which residents of Washington Island consider how to protect themselves from Strang's raiding minions. And the Gang wished SWG-member Connie Cappell good luck when she journeys to Key West next month to once again offer her controversial views on Ernest Hemingway's early love life to the staid, primarily-male attendees at the next biannual Hemingway symposium.

After the Friday discussions, members retreated to the Shamrock, where the Islanders entertained them by staging a vestigial brawl. So naturally they returned on Saturday night, and were invited into a home where they were serenaded with old-time Island songs, such as We'll Dance on Strang's Bones and Let's Sweep the Beavers Clean.
Those who missed out on the fun should keep their ear tuned to NPR for the radio program being developed by Jennifer Nix from recordings of the various sessions and interviews with the attendees.

The participants enjoyed the conference, and the group began to grow by word of mouth. But Beaver Island is off the beaten track and can be difficult and expensive to reach, so no one knew what to expect at the next planned get-together. However, it was a rousing success, as indicated by the following report from the Beaver Beacon:

The Shooting of Strang

The group that used to be known as the Strang Writers Group and has now adopted the title Society for Strang Studies, completed its annual meeting on Beaver Island on June 19th, and planned some events for next summer. On June 16th, the 150th anniversary of the bushwhacking of America's only King, it will stage a re-enactment of the event that dramatically changed the complexion of the Island overnight–an ambush whose ethical appropriateness is still hotly debated in St. James.

The next night, which will be a Saturday, the SfSS intends to stage a production of John Baldwin's play detailing the events that led up to the fatal amble out Dr. McCullough's dock towards the Michigan, the United States ironclad on which the two assassins would make their getaway. During the three-day conference several new papers on Strang will be presented and discussed as well; afterwards these papers will be collected and published as a book.

While on Beaver, the SfSS elected Vickie Speek, the release of whose book on Strang has been rescheduled for February by Signature Books, as Chair, decided that voting rights would follow from the payment of individual ten-dollar annual dues, and actively debated such questions as where Strang's Cave of the Forty Thieves may have been located and whether or not there's any evidence for ‘Charlie’ having been the real person and Elvira the charade.

The group planned an ambitious undertaking for the following year. Much of its enthusiasm was due to the presence of John Baldwin, the former head of MSU’s Theatre Department who believed the original sets from the Lansing production of his play were still available. He suggested that MSU might be induced to take on the production of the play if the necessary talent and funding could not be appropriated on Beaver Island.
Unfortunately this inspiring leader passed away a few days after Christmas (click here for John Baldwin’s obituary), and an aura of depression fell over the group, sapping its collective will. The anticipated abundance of papers for the following summer failed to materialize, adding to the gloom. But spring brought some fresh energy and hope, and a potential script for the re-enactment was devised and circulated in the newsletter. There were several last-minute snafus, and yet the conference was a considerable success, as reported in the Beaver Beacon:

Strang Writers' Conference: a big Success

The Society for Strang Studies commemorated the 150th anniversary of the murder of James Strang by presenting five papers, sponsoring a re-enactment of the assassination, and hosting two evening programs at the Holy Cross Parish Hall.

Ted Sirotko set the bar high with his opening presentation, an overview on the life and work of James Strang, delivered to a packed room, in which he mentioned every relevant factor. His paper was studiously neutral, but the speaker's personal opinions were made manifest in several subtle nuances. John Quinn, a professor at Hope College, followed with an animated discussion of classical touches that Strang had included in his writings, ranging from his newspaper articles to his long theological discourses.

Early that evening well over a hundred people gathered at Pinky's fence on a warm and sunny day to watch a re-enactment of the shooting of Strang, which had happened exactly 150 years before. Sets for the USS Michigan and McCullough's Store had been fabricated by Larry Robinson and elegantly painted by Beaver Island's budding artistic genius Keith Grassmick the day before. Terry Grabill, who has been bringing the Fremont Middle School students here for a week at CMU’s Bio Station for seven years, served as the narrator as his well-costumed and rehearsed charges acted out the events of that fatal day, which changed the face of Beaver Island forever.

Afterwards, the crowd adjourned to the Parish Hall for a reading of Bill Olson's play, Shades of Beaver Island. Locals supplied the voices: Barry McDonough narrated; Phil Becker was 'Strang in Purgatory,' Jayne and Melissa Bailey were Mary and Elvira, the King's first two wives, and Barry Pischner was Tom Bedford, one of the assassins. The play, described as a variant of Sartre's No Exit, has Strang stuck to a stool on a bare stage, condemned to read only the bad news of Earth as punishment for his sins. He is visited in turn by Mary, Elvira, and Bedford join him on a second stool to give him clues about his fate, but the former King remains too stubborn and obtuse to benefit from their hints. Upon the play's conclusion, moderator Rebecca Carlson, a professor who with her husband is building a home at Sand Bay, queried the audience for its opinion about the play, the enactment, the papers from the afternoon, or any other thoughts about Strang.
Bill Olson kicked off the Saturday morning papers by talking about how Beaver Island was affected by having its own onramp to the superhighway known as the Great Lakes. Living on Washington Island, he first heard about Strang when he uncovered old material detailing local efforts to protect themselves from the reach of the increasingly powerful Mormon King to their east. Vickie Speek expanded on one of the chapters of her new book when she spoke on the causes and nature of the strife between the Mormons and 'gentiles' in the Strang era, apportioning blame to both sides. Constance Cappell (Hemingway in Michigan) concluded the talks by discussing a book she had edited, Odawa Language and Legends, written by her friend, Ray Kiogima, perhaps the last known speaker of the true Odawa tongue. The book includes material from Andrew Blackbird; Dr. Cappell is on the board of the Blackbird Museum.

The group is planning to publish these five papers with the scripts for the enactment and the play.

Saturday evening the group met again at the Parish Hall for a talk by Native American author Simon Otto, which was attended by about forty. His stories took people away from the chaotically-paced modern world of which we are all a part, and gave them an hour and a half of peaceful immersion in a world in which there was less confusion and noisea perfect way to end a hectic weekend.

Now the SfSS is considering its options for a fourth conference to be held on Beaver Island in the summer of 2008.