2016-10-27 / Life in Leelanau

Fisherman farmed and farmers fished to survive on Fox islands

Mormons were early settlers


ONE of the many farms cleared on South Fox Island. ONE of the many farms cleared on South Fox Island. The following story is being republished with permission from the book “The Fox Islands, North and South,” written by Kathleen Craker Firestone. The section below was included the chapter called Island Farming.

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Though fishermen were the first recorded settlers on North and South Fox Islands, they were soon joined by farmers. In fact, to say that fishermen did nothing but fish and farmers did nothing but farm would be incorrect.

Many fishermen had garden plots, and many farmers spent some of their time fishing. The fish and the fruits and vegetables were placed together on the tables to make tasty meals for the families. Maple sugar and maple syrup were made by Native Americans who tapped the maple trees during the early 1900s. Many settlers also cut wood for steamer fuel, heat and cooking.


KATHLEEN Craker Firestone wrote the definitive book on the Fox islands. Dedicated in memory of her parents Sterling Nickerson II and Bernice Weaver Nickerson, it was published in 1996. KATHLEEN Craker Firestone wrote the definitive book on the Fox islands. Dedicated in memory of her parents Sterling Nickerson II and Bernice Weaver Nickerson, it was published in 1996. Some of the first farmers on the Foxes were Mormons who had come from Beaver Island. In the summer of 1850, James Strang was crowned a king to rule over the Mormons in the area. The greatest influence Strang had on the Fox Islands was political, as was recorded in the previous chapter. Part of this section will deal with the Mormon people themselves who lived on North and South Fox.

Strang called North Fox, Paws, and South Fox, Patmos. Of Patmos he wrote:

“Patmos is a mountain rising abruptly from Lake Michigan, to the height of two or three hundred feet. The summit is rolling and beautiful, and a most excellent soil. Towards the South-East the land is but moderately elevated, and exquisitely beautiful. There is the Mormon settlement. Several farms are opened, but there is room for more. No better farming land is found anywhere. There is no Harbor, but the shores are bold, and the landing good with any kind of craft....

The island is to be laid out in farms, extending from the East to the West shore, and usually about two hundred acres in extent, and all intersected by a single road, from one end of the Island to the other, which rises to the summit by a very gentle ascent.”

His description of Paros was more brief:

“Paros is a miniature of Patmos, though not quite equal in quality. The Mormons are just commencing a settlement upon it.”

In 1851 Strang reported in his newspaper, the Northern Islander, that the South Fox Mormon community consisted of five men, five women and seven children. There were also two families and two single men who were not members of the church. Wooding station owner Nicholas Pickard was probably one of those Strang referred to who was not a Mormon.

The farms were not being developed quite as rapidly as Strang had hoped. He wrote in the Northern Islander in April, 1851, that although North and South Fox Islands were “well adapted to agriculture,”... “there is a lack of domestic animals and too little disposition to cultivate the soil.” But Strang was hopeful, saying, “The colony gives full promise of prosperity.”

Nicholas Pickard supplied cordwood to the many passing steamers. The Mormon farmers are also reported to have done this and may have worked with Pickard. In addition, they made cedar staves for fish barrels. It is not known who the other non-Mormons were. Fisherman Samuel Rice and his five young daughters were gone from South Fox by this time.

Strang wrote that he expected 12 new Mormon families would be added to the South Fox population the following spring. A young Mormon, William Chambers, took word back to Strang that the first growing season for the South Fox Mormons had given them an abundant potato harvest and corn of excellent quality, some stalks measuring 12 feet high. Strang was ahead of his time in requiring his followers to be concerned about the environment. He demanded that refuse from fish cleaning be buried in garden plots. In this way, the grounds were more sanitary, and the Native American method of fertilizing crops was put into practice.

By 1854 more gentile fishermen had arrived on South Fox and so had more Mormon farmers. Strang reported an equal number of Mormons and non-Mormons. Some of these non-Mormons may have been Native Americans.

The Mormon farmers, as well as Mormon fishermen, gained notoriety on the islands and in the mainland settlement as troublemakers and robbers; and they were charged and hauled off to court over and over, although they were never convicted. Strang recorded one account of unfair charges against the South Fox Mormon farmers:

“Later in the fall (1851) the propeller Illinois went ashore on (South) Fox Island. The Captain went to Manitou for assistance, and was refused. He then went to Beaver, and asked Mr. Strang to furnish him assistance. He had been unfriendly to the Mormons, and several times treated them ill. Yet they turned out in force to save his boat, of which he was half owner. When they arrived there it was so much injured that he determined to abandon it. The Mormons refused to abandon it; saying, they would set their pumps and try the effect, whether he paid them or not. They did so, and in seven hours had her afloat. She was brought safely into Beaver Harbor, and saved.

The settlers on Fox Island, who were an equal number of Mormons and Gentiles, took the job of saving the cargo on shares, and built a storehouse for the sole purpose of housing it; and put it up in the best possible order, and waited the Captain’s arrival in the spring to divide it. This was at the back side of the Island, distant from, and out of sight of their dwellings.

In the spring he came with the Illinois in the night and commenced moving the cargo, without consulting them. They accidentally discovered him in time to save part of their share. Yet he went off calling the Mormons robbers, and accusing them of plundering him, and has never shown them the slightest gratitude. Of the Gentiles who were equally concerned, he made no mention.”

So it appears that the Mormon farmers on the Fox Islands experienced the same type of problems the Beaver Island Mormons encountered. When Thomas Bedford and Alexander Wentworth assassinated Strang in 1856, the Mormons on the Foxes departed.

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