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.