TRAVERSE CITY — You don’t have to go far to find authentic Irish lore in northern Michigan, though if it’s Beaver Island lore you’re after, you might have to take a plane or ferry.
Lying 30 miles off the Charlevoix coast in Lake Michigan, Beaver island is northern Michigan’s very own Emerald Isle. Historians called it the “most Irish community in the Midwest” during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“By the 1870s, this was a Gaelic-speaking community throughout the island,” said William Cashman, local historian and director of the Beaver Island Historical Society.
Some inhabitants never learned English, and Gaelic survived into the early 20th century.
Knowing northwestern lower Michigan’s Irish history is a window into the state’s pioneer days and Beaver Island’s short-lived era from 1850-1856 as a Mormon kingdom under the autocratic rule of James Jesse Strang, self-declared king of the church.
About 30,000 Irish immigrants came to Michigan between 1830 and 1860. In 1840, Michigan legislators gave Irish names to four Michigan counties — Antrim, Clare, Roscommon and Wexford. Many of Michigan’s Irish found jobs constructing canals, roads and railroads or working in early factories. Some settled in commercial fishing camps that appeared along the Mackinac Straits and Beaver Island’s archipelago in the 1830s after fur trading died and the American Fur Co. switched its focus to fish.
By the 1850 U.S. Census, 483 people resided on Beaver Island, 74 percent of them Mormons who lived at the north end of the island in St. James, around the harbor and on interior farmland. A total 128 non-Mormons were in 33 households at Cable Bay on the south end.
In 1850, Strang pressured non-believers at Cable Bay into abandoning their homes. Of the 146 expelled, 102 were adults — 23 of whom had been born in Ireland. By 1852, all Gentiles had left and Mormons were in sole possession, as reported by Helen Collar, an early Beaver Island summer resident and historian from 1915 until her death in 1996.
Strang died in Wisconsin on July 9, 1856, of wounds received almost three weeks before in a June 16 assassination attempt by a few of his followers. Once Strang was out of the way, some of the original Irish settlers and a mob of residents from the Mackinac Straits and nearby St. Helena Island who wanted to take over the Mormon farms and businesses rounded up the more than 2,000 Mormons on the island, confiscated their belongings and shipped them off on July 5, 1856, to various ports around the Great Lakes.
Early Michigan historian Byron McCutcheon described the forced exodus as “the most disgraceful day in Michigan history.”
The influx of Irish from New York, Pennsylvania and Ireland began after that, Cashman said.
U.S. Census reports for 1870, 1880 and 1890 reveal that nearly 95 percent of the families on the island were of Irish descent. Many were farmer-fishermen from the Irish islands of Arranmore and Rutland off the coast of Donegal County in northwestern Ireland
By 1881, Beaver Island had become the largest supplier of fresh-water fish in the United States because of the control Irish fishermen had over the rich fishing grounds.
Irish dominance of Beaver Island’s population began to change in 1897 when Father Alexander Zugelder, a popular German priest based in Traverse City, was sent to replace Father Peter Gallagher, a colorful Irish priest who died the year before. Some of his parishioners came with him.
“Suddenly a half-dozen German families were on the island,” Cashman said. “That broke the Irish stranglehold on the culture.”
In 1903, the Beaver Island Lumber Company of Freesoil arrived with locomotive, equipment and 125 loggers, some of whom married into Irish families. That altered the social landscape and further diluted Irish cultural dominance.
By the 1930s, concern was growing across the United States about the need to preserve early American folklore, music and songs endangered by radio, other technology and changing times.
Two folklorists — Ivan Walton and Alan Lomax — came to Beaver Island with early recording equipment in the 1930s and into 1940 to preserve its Irish lore, sailor ballads, island songs, fiddle playing and story telling. Walton taught literature and folklore at the University of Michigan, while Lomax worked for the Library of Congress.
Their recordings are part of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center archives. The Beaver Island Historical Society archives also have a DVD collection of the Lomax recordings.