A recently discovered document in the Michigan Masonic Museum and Library (MMM&L) has given a small glimpse into the fascinating history of Beaver Island, MI and its involvement in the early history of the Latter Day Saints movement.
The Michigan Masonic Museum and Library maintains a collection of documents we commonly refer to as the ‘Archives of the Grand Lodge.’ This label describes several boxes of correspondence related to the early days of the Grand Lodge. Most are bundled with string by year. Several of the documents are extremely brittle and the totality of their contents has not been plumbed simply because we lack the resources to explore them completely and properly in terms of preservation, care, and handling of the documents.
However, we are able to look at the archives in small parts as time and, more importantly, resources allow. On one such recent look I discovered a written request from the town of St. James, on Beaver Island, requesting dispensation from the Grand Lodge of Michigan to form a Masonic lodge on the island and allow it to engage in the ritual work of Masonry. Perhaps the most eye-catching piece of the request was that it included James Strang as one of the petitioners.
Early History of Beaver Island
I encourage you to do your own research into the history of Beaver Island and James Strang. I’ll give you the reader’s digest version. There was a succession crisis in the early Mormon church following the death of its founder Joseph Smith. A sizable chunk of followers sided with Brigham Young who would eventually lead his group to Utah. A smaller faction of the church sided with James Strang. After different moves, the Strang group removed to Beaver Island, MI where Strang was declared a king and his followers all but took over the island. He would eventually be assassinated by disaffected followers and the Strang chapter of Beaver Island’s history would come to and end as most of Strang’s flock was forced to leave the island.
The Request for Dispensation
There has been much written about the relationship between Freemasonry and the early development of Mormonism. I’ll leave readers to their own research, but it would not be surprising to find out that some of Strang’s followers on Beaver Island might have been initiated in Mormon Masonic lodges in Navoo, IL or Noree, WI where several of Strang’s followers were located before coming to Beaver Island.
The request for dispensation is very basic in its structure. It is undated, but accompanied by a letter from Grand River Lodge #34, in support of the request for dispensation. The Grand River letter is dated July 20, 1853 and signed by the lodge’s First Master, Truman Lyon.
The request from Beaver Island proposed the lodge be named ‘Emmet Co. Lodge’ with George Miller – Worshipful Master, Phineas Wright – Senior Warden, M. Adlrich – Junior Warden. The petition was submitted by Hezekiah D. McCulloch, Benjamin G. Wright, Erastus H. Derby, Jas J. Strang, John Henderson, Moses Chase, (one illegible signature), and Phineas Wright.
A review of Strang / Beaver Island related historical resources show several of these individuals were prominent members of Strang’s community on the island. One was even later implicated in the events leading up to Strang’s death.
Some Final Observations
I was curious why there was a letter of support from Grand River Lodge #34 included with the request. Then I realized that it may have been a matter of proximity. In 1853, Grand River was likely one of the closest lodges in Michigan to Beaver Island. To confirm this I plotted all of the lodges in the 1853 Grand Lodge Proceedings onto a Google map. My hunch was correct. No doubt their endorsement was sought out of Masonic custom and/or law.
Of course there is also the million dollar question – what happened to the request? I can’t find any evidence in the 1853 or 1854 Grand Lodge proceedings, or any subsequent Grand Lodge proceeding, that the request was ever discussed. It leaves me to suppose the Grand Lodge likely did not consider the request or possibly had some knowledge of the difficulty in the Grand Lodge of Illinois regarding lodges in the Navoo area. There had also been a considerable amount of recent drama in Michigan regarding Strang and the residents of Beaver Island. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think it was likely in the best interest of the Grand Lodge not to fulfill the request for a lodge on Beaver Island.
I’ve done a lot of my own reading today regarding Beaver Island, Strang, and the relationship between Masonry in Illinois and early Mormonism. I’ve left a good deal of that background out of this writing and would prefer you do your own research to draw your own conclusions. I offer this document from the archives because it is an intriguing piece of early Masonry in Michigan that intersects with a fascinating timeline in Michigan and national history during the Strang era of Beaver Island.
Until next time…
-The Masonic Historian