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Michigan Chronoscope - Stories on the fringe of history
Chronograph Numeral III - Spring 2010 - Page Three
Lost Treasure of Poverty Island Poverty Island Lighthouse photo by Karmen Bisher Poverty Island Lighthouse

    The treasure of Poverty Island, a tale of a treasure of gold lost at sea, is part of our Great Lakes legends and lore. Poverty Island is in Lake Michigan near Wisconsin, about 50 miles northwest of Leelanau County Michigan. There are a few different versions of where the treasure came from and why it was lost. What is presented below is the most repeated version.
    Near the end of the Civil War, in 1862 or 1863, a Canadian ship was carrying five (or more) chests of gold (estimated at $150 million in todayĻs prices) that was sent by France to help the Confederacy . The ship was stopped by a State of Michigan cutter, near Poverty Island. Not wanting the gold seized, the crew threw the treasure overboard along with a marker. But when they returned, they could not find the gold. It is not known if the marker became unattached, if they just couldn't find it, or if someone beat them to spot and retrieved it. Under forty to fifty feet of water, five chests of heavy gold would be hard to recover in those days. This account is not historically documented as far as I could find, but someone in the early 1930s found the story compelling enough to mount a search for the lost treasure.
    In 1930 a Chicago businessman created an enterprise to find the lost gold. The Chicago group sent a salvage crew on a ship named the Captain Lawrence that was equipped with a diving bell to Poverty Island. The salvage team searched for the treasure for three years before the Captain Lawrence sank in a violent storm. No one perished in this disaster and the survivors never claimed to have found anything.
    Richard Bennett, a professional diver and former diving equipment store owner, had been searching for the shipwreck for years and found a newspaper article from 1941 verifying the Captain Lawrence expeditions. Bennett had even interviewed the daughter of one of the crew members in 1990, and she told him that her father had always said that he wanted to go back to Poverty Island, because he knew the treasure was there. This part of the story proves true, but according to people living on the island in the early 30s, it didnít end there.
    Carl Jensen, the son of the Poverty Island Lighthouse keeper, would often sit near the shore and watch the crew working on the Captain Lawrence. During the third season of their endeavor, Carl watched the crew haul the diving bell on board the ship and remove several large objects from it. At this point the crew started to yell, dance around, and clink bottles together in joyful toasts. A storm that was brewing that day began to worsen and forced the boy indoors while the crew continued to celebrate their mysterious find. The storm then grew so strong that the Captain Lawrence was sunk along with diving bell and the heavy objects they brought up.
    A former girlfriend of Carl Jensen remembered when the diving bell washed ashore, and that she and all the island children played in it for years until another storm took it back out into the lake. Carl Jensen's sister recalled how a year after the ship sank, a salvage crew, perhaps it was the same crew from the Captain Lawrence, quietly returned, found the gold, and then departed with the twice lost treasure. Iím sure a party of treasure hunters would have a secrecy oath, especially after finding and then losing the treasure. They certainly would have returned as quickly as possible to reclaim the treasure that literally slipped through their fingers.
    Currently, treasure hunting expeditions at Poverty Island are tied up in legal issues making it hard for people like Richard Bennett to find collaborating evidence. It seems to me any chests that sat at the bottom of the lake for seventy years, were brought up and then lost in a shipwreck, would have broken apart and spread their contents out all over the area, even in a single season. Given that the heavy diving bell from the wreck actually washed up on shore, any treasure would have been scattered. Perhaps there is gold washing up along the shores of Poverty Island right now.

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King Strang of Beaver Island 1836 Map of Beaver Island in Lake Michigan 1836 Map of Michigan

    Certainly a most colorful moment in the history of Michigan and the Great Lakes is when a lawyer from New York was crowned the King of a theocracy. James Strang was born in New York in 1813. In the early 1830s he had high expectations, writing in his diary that, "My mind has always been filled with dreams of royalty and power". After his royal aspirations ended in a failed plot to marry Princess Victoria of England (crowned queen in 1837), he became a lawyer in 1836 at the age of 23. Eight years later, in 1844, he met the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Impressed with the Mormon founder and 'prophet' Joseph Smith, James Strang would follow Smith's example and even turn it up a notch. Strang was a silver tongued lawyer with political savvy and was known for excellent debating skills. He impressed Smith so much, Strang was given the job of founding a branch in Wisconsin. While engaged in his assignment, on June 27, 1844, the Mormons lost their leader Joseph Smith in a violent tragedy brought on by the persecution they had experienced in those times.
    It seems that Strang, although born again in the blood of the Lord, still had lawyer blood flowing through his veins because he used this as an opportunity to seize the day. Strang meets Smith before February 24th, 1844, when he was baptized into the church. Only four months after joining the church, he launched a plan to take over the whole religion. When Smith died Strang claimed an angel appeared, anointed him with oil and ordained him "to the rulership of the Saints on Earth." He also produced a letter, supposedly from the late leader, postmarked prior to Smith's death, that pronounced Strang as successor.
    Things got tough for Strang when he claimed leadership the same time as Brigham Young did, who ended up excommunicating Strang and taking most of the believers to Utah. Those who remained with Strang did so mostly because they rejected the new doctrines of plural marriage. Following Smith's act to the letter, an angel again appeared to Strang to tell him about some mysterious brass plates engraved with a lost history of Native Americans on them. In just 12 days after this divine encounter, enough time to fashion plates out a brass kettle and engrave them as some have claimed, Strang was able to lead his followers to a spot and dig up some ancient brass plates.
    With the guidance of angels and the divine translation of ancient brass plates, Strang's flock came to an uneasy rest in 1848 on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. On July 8, 1850, Strang was crowned and declared king of his kingdom before a group of around 250 followers. The influx of 'Strangites' to the sparsely populated area had give them a loud political voice. In the 1852 election their votes were enough to elect Strang as state representative for the Newaygo District which he won again in 1855.
    In-fighting over changing doctrines and claims of fraud against Strang started to weaken the colony. Eventually tensions between the Strangites and the locals escalated. After a number of 'battles', disgruntled ex-followers, displaced locals and even the State government was against Strang who was finally assassinated. His murderers where arrested and then set free after a token trial. Only 12 years after it was founded, the colony was driven from the island.
    Just like a corrupt politician or mafioso wise-guy, James Strang understood the potential of the movement as a way to gain power. This became the way to satisfy his unrealized aspirations to enter into royalty and to ultimately rise to the highest level of power, a power bestowed to him directly by the divine. He was wise to Smith's game and found he could play the it through to the end and become the short lived King of the Mormons - Long Live the King.