1855 : Pirates of the Caribbean, er, Lake Michigan, Run Amok

October 7, 2021 all-day

October 7-12, 1855

An anonymous old sailor reminisced about his experiences on Beaver Island in the Oswego Palladium of December 30, 1876. The old sailor sat on the hearth in a ship chandler’s store, swapping yarns with four disbelieving young fellows. Then suddenly he stopped in mid tobacco chew and became serious. The old sailor told the young fellows that on the east shore of Lake Michigan were men who pretended to follow fishing to make a living, but who, “if the truth were known, made more by luring vessels on to the beach by false lights and robbing vessels and crews than they did by their nets and hooks.”

The old sailor said that the followers of Joe Smith, the Mormon, lived on Beaver Island, Lake Michigan, and that in midsummer several ships and their crews had disappeared around Beaver Island and were never heard from again. According to the old sailor, Mormons boarded becalmed vessels, murdered their crews, discharged the cargoes on Beaver Island and burned or scuttled the ships. He said that sailors found iron of a kind only used aboard vessels, and pork and beef barrel heads of a kind that Mormons never bought on the Island. He said law enforcement officials and island residents tried to capture the criminals, but they didn’t have enough proof to implicate anyone.

The Old Sailor’s Beaver Island Yarn

Between tobacco chews, the old sailor told the young fellows that in the fall of 1849, he had embarked on a brig from Buffalo to Chicago. As they neared the Beavers they caught a stiff and hard breeze from northward and although he thought the ship could outrun the stiff breeze, it stirred up enormous waves that washed over their ship. Late that afternoon the wind still held, the sky threatened snow, and the captain of the ship decided to take shelter under the Beavers until the storm had blown itself out.

The captain of the brig pulled up on the lee side, dropped the anchors, and furled the canvas. The captain appointed watches with Jack Stevens the first watchman, and the rest of crew retired to their bunks. About eight bells – midnight-Jack Stevens shouted so loud that he might have been heard in Green Bay. The old tar said that when he and the other sailors heard the mate, a big brawny fellow with a sledge hammer fist, order them on deck, they sprang out of bed and ran on deck.

When the sailors reached the deck, they saw by observing the lights in the houses belonging to the Mormons onshore, that the brig fast approached the beach. Two of the sailors, one the narrator of the story – swiftly ran up the fore rigging and rigged the sails so that the brig clawed off the shore like a startled duck making for a safe haven in the middle of a pond.

Saw Cut Chains and Missing Anchors

The sailors investigated the reason the brig had gone ashore and discovered that both chains from the windlass to the hawser pipes were not taut as they should have been and their ends were lying on the deck. When they pulled the ends of the chain inboard, the sailors discovered that both chains had been cut not far from the bow with a steel saw as cleanly as if the links had been snapped apart.

The old sailor said that “it was evident that the Mormons had been at work” and if Jack Stevens had not discovered the sabotaging of the ship it would have gone ashore and the entire crew murdered. The entire crew stood watch until morning and then the captain lowered the yawl and went ashore to see if he could find the anchors. According to the old sailor, the captain saw by the faces of the ‘Latter Day Saints’ that they were disappointed that the crew had lived to discover the saw cut chains and the missing anchors.

The captain couldn’t locate the missing anchors, so he returned to his brig and he and his crew sailed safely away from Beaver Island. The next season while he sailed on a schooner from Ashtabula, the old sailor saw the same two anchors the brig had lost the season before at the Beavers. He talked to the captain about the anchors and the captain said that he had bought the anchors from the Mormons that spring. The old sailor could positively identify the anchors because he knew them by the marks that his shipmate, Tom Jones, had made while he sat on them spinning yarns. A bouncing big fellow, Tom Jones sat on the anchors so much that he marked them with hearts – canvas hearts he had sewed on the seat of his trousers.

The “Mormon” Pirates Raid West Michigan, Leaving a Newspaper Trail

Several newspapers including the Allegheny Record, the Brooklyn Eagle, and the New York Times picked up a story from an Allegan newspaper that converted some of the rumors about the Mormon pirates into stark black newsprint. The story, carrying dates from October 7, 1855, to October 12, 1855, said that people from Lake Michigan from Grand Haven in west Michigan to the Manistee River at Manistee further north, were in an uproar because a gang of marauding pirates. The marauders, reported to be Mormons from Beaver Island, operated more boldly than any other highwaymen on record.

The pirate gang reportedly burned sawmills, and robbed stores north of the Grand River. The pirates tried repeatedly to break into stores and shops at Grand Haven. Then they sailed to the mouth of the Kalamazoo River and after looking around, they voyaged south as far as the tanneries in the town of Ganges. On Saturday night they broke into Robins & Plummer’s Store, robbed them of $1,600 worth of goods, and retreated down Lake Michigan. Robinson and Plumber pursued the pirates as far north as Grand Haven and then turned back, because the Grand Haven people advised them that it would be useless and unsafe to pursue them further without an army of hundreds of men.

A vessel’s crew anchored off Port Sheldon spotted the pirate ship and the pirates openly displayed all of their loot as if they had legitimately purchased it. Observers said that there were about twenty men in the pirate gang sailing one twenty to thirty ton schooner and two Mackinaw boats. The story concluded by noting, “There seems to be no question as to the identity of the robbers or their hailing place. They are emissaries from King Strang’s realms, and the whole power of the state should be lent to ferret out and bring justice to the perpetrators of such bold crimes.”

The New York Times Perceptions of James Strang

A story in the New York Times datelined Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, January 4, 1907, reported that the partially burned Eclipse, the vessel of Pirate King Strang of Beaver Island, had been found in the sands of Beaver Island. State officers had captured the Eclipse after a bloody fight in 1855, and set it on fire. Many of Strang’s pirates were killed in the fight.

According to the New York Times, Captain Strang ruled the island like a dictator and headed “one of the most desperate bands of pirates that ever infested American waters.”

The New York Times said that Captain Strang and his pirate crew would ambush ships that passed Beaver Island and either murder the sailors or take them as prisoners to Beaver Island and force them to become Mormons. Beaver Island residents uncovered many skeletal remains of victims of the pirate band and they found many old hulls of ships that Strang and his men destroyed.

Excerpt from Kathy Warnes, “Beaver Island – Fisherman’s Paradise, Mormon Kingdom, Pirate Lair”, Maritime Moments, Posted on July 4, 2012.

Kathy Warnes, “Beaver Island – Fisherman’s Paradise, Mormon Kingdom, Pirate Lair”, Meandering Michigan History blog for tales of pirates and other oddities on the Detroit and nearby Rivers.

For another Lake Michigan Pirate Story, see Dan Seavey.

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