Educator Notes: GG05

Keeper Of The Light - Elizabeth Whitney Williams


  • Timeline of Elizabeth Whitney Williams' life
  • Brief History of Beaver Island
  • 5 Themes of Geography overview sheet

At a time when women were relegated to the role of housewife, mother and servant, Elizabeth's job as a lighthouse keeper was quite unique. Of additional interest is the "place" (the Straits of Mackinac) where the fishing industry was second to none in America at that time. This fact is a bit hard to believe in view of the low population and high poverty of that area now. (This "place" provides a fine opportunity to discuss geographic themes, and considerable amount of detail has been provided that can be enlarged upon in class discussion.)

Most interesting of all is the unusual circumstances of a monarchy existing within the borders of America, a democracy. Jessie Strang, a Mormon, proclaimed Beaver Island his kingdom and he the king. In no other place in America did such an event occur. King Strang ruled Beaver Island like a monarch, and it was the geographic location of Beaver Island the enabled him to trample the civil rights of the residents and break many laws. This story offers the opportunity for an engaging discussion about democracy, how it works and what happens when laws are not obeyed and a police force is not available to maintain the constitutional rights of the citizens.

Elizabeth Whitney Williams
Biographical Notes By Kathryn Eike Dudding

Elizabeth's mother was born on Mackinac Island of British parents, and was left an orphan when young.
She was adopted by Captain Michael Dousman and his wife, and resided with their family almost 30 years.
Presumably the Dousmans spoke French, for that was her native language, as it was for most of the people who lived in the Western Islands and shores at that time. She married Mr. Lewis Gebeau of Montreal, Canada, and had four sons. One son died as an infant. The three surviving sons were named Lewis, Anthony and Charley. Mr. Gebeau died when the boys were still very young. She subsequently married Mr. Walter Whitney. Elizabeth was the only child of that marriage.

Elizabeth's father, Walter Whitney, was born in Genesee County, New York. He enlisted in the army, served, and was honorably discharged in the Blackhawk and Florida War. After being discharged, he went to Fort Brady, Sault Ste.Marie, then to Mackinac Island, Michigan, where he met and married Mrs. Gebeau.

1842 Elizabeth Whitney was born on Mackinac Island, MI.
1846 [Elizabeth: age 4] The Whitney family, as well as Mrs. Whitney's three sons, moved to Beaver Island.
1847 [age 5] James Strang visited Beaver Island for the first time.
1850 [age 8] Beaver Island census: 483 people, 74% Mormon. Strang and the Whitneys occasionally met and sometimes ate together.
1852 [age 10] Fearing for their safety, the Whitney family left Beaver Island for Charlevoix.
1853 [age 11] During a battle in Charlevoix with Mormons from Beaver Island, Elizabeth's brother Lewis was shot in the calf, a flesh wound. Again fearing for their safety, two of her brothers moved to Harbor Springs while Elizabeth and her parents moved to Traverse City.
1856 [age 14] Harbor Point Light, Beaver Island, was erected. Strang was killed. Elizabeth's brother Lewis was one of the people who drove the Mormons from Beaver Island.
1857 [age 15] The Whitney family returned to Beaver Island so they could be near Elizabeth's three brothers and so Mrs. Whitney could once again speak French.
1860 [age 18] Elizabeth married Clement Van Riper. They lived very near the harbor lighthouse. He started a large cooper shop at the Point, employing several men in the summer season. They often spent the winter elsewhere (Milwaukee, Northport and Charlevoix). He built at least one boat, the Lookout. It had a bad reputation: then three men drowned in it in 1873.
1862-64 [ages 20-22] Elizabeth and her husband were teachers to the Indians on Garden Island, a few miles to the north of Beaver Island 1866 [age 24] They spent the winter in Charlevoix in a new house built for them on Bridge Street. In the spring, they returned to Beaver Island, engaging in the fishing business quite extensively for a few years.
1869 [age 27] Clement Van Riper was appointed keeper of the Harbor Point Light, Beaver Island.
1872 [age 30] Clement Van Riper died in his efforts to assist a sinking ship. Several weeks later, Elizabeth was appointed keeper of the Harbor Point Light.
1875 [age 33] Elizabeth married Daniel Williams.
1876 [age 34] Life Saving Station was established at Harbor Point.
1884 [age 42] Elizabeth requested a transfer to a lighthouse on the mainland. She was appointed the first keeper of the Harbor Point Light House, Harbor Springs, Little Traverse Bay. Her husband photographed the resort country, selling his photographs to the resort visitors
1905 [age 63] Elizabeth published "A Child of the Sea."
1913 [age 71] After 41 years of service, Elizabeth retired as lighthouse keeper.
1922 [age 80] A newspaper reporter interviewed Elizabeth in her home in Charlevoix.
1925 [age 83] A Grand Rapids Herald reporter interviewed Elizabeth.

Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford," Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers", 1993.

Copies of two newspaper articles, ca. 1922 and 1925, generously supplied by J. Candace Clifford

"The Journal of Beaver Island History", Volume 1, 1976 and Volume 2, 1980.
Elizabeth Whitney Williams," A Child of the Sea", 1905.

o The following overview provides information about the history and geography of Beaver Island that may be helpful in using the biography of Elizabeth Whitney Williams as the basis for a discussion of geographic themes. The on-line assessment the follows the biography test students' ability to make geographic connections. An overview of the 5 themes of geography follows.

A General Overview of Beaver Island's History

By William Cashman, Beaver Island Historian

Beaver Island as we know it first appeared out of the ice eleven thousand years ago. Since then, its form has changed considerably because of the rise and fall of Lake Michigan, which has ranged over a differential of 375'. The Lake dropped to a very low level about 8,000 years ago, and stayed down for 4,000 years. During this time, this land was not an island at all but an appendage of the mainland. Then the Lake rose to 30' above its present level, submerging all of Beaver except the central plateau. Next, it dropped about ten feet, producing a slightly smaller version of our present Island. The edge of this configuration was layered with beach gravel. When a logging railroad was built in 1904, it was placed on this firm bed.

We know that Native Americans passed by Beaver Island as long ago as 2,200 years. There is no proof that they lived here, but the oral tradition of the Odawas, who have resided here for over 300 years, is that there were small fishing villages in many of the bays when they arrived. Arrowheads, spearheads, and fragments of Woodland-period pottery indicate that at least they came ashore. Fire-cracked rocks mark their cooking fires along the bluff. In 1871 the archeologist Henry Gillman opened some of the mounds in the harbor, and was surprised at the "uncommonly skillful workmanship" of the artifacts he found.

The Odawas (Ottawas) migrated westward in the ripples of Native American movement that retreated from contact with the whites, arriving on Beaver Island in the mid-1700s. At times they were recruited to help in skirmishes between the English and the French, but little was known about their lives until Father Baraga came from L'Arbre Croche in 1832 to convert the Indians living on the north shore to Catholicism. He baptized 22 Indians, but those living in the settlement near Whiskey Point remained pagan. A few years later, some of the 199 Indians living on Garden Island, 2 miles north (and the site of over 3,000 Indian graves), were converted by other missionaries.

White traders and trappers began to appear in the early 1800s. Trapping, fishing, and cutting wood for the passing steamers allowed men to earn a living at this frontier. By the 1840s, two trading posts were flourishing. Economic power shifted here from Mackinac Island because of Beaver's good fishing, ample forests, and vastly superior harbor. In 1850, 100 people lived in a growing community at Whiskey Point, unaware that the few Mormons already present would soon overwhelm them and force them to leave.

James Strang, who would create America's only kingdom on Beaver Island, was born in New York in 1813. He expected great things of himself. He established a law practice at the age of 23, but it failed to satisfy his ambition. When he met Joseph Smith in 1844, he converted to his new evangelical religion as a way of improving his position.

Strang's debating skills impressed the Mormon leader, who assigned him to found a branch in Burlington, Wisconsin. While Strang was away, Smith was killed. Shortly thereafter Strang produced a letter naming him as Smith's chosen heir. He was challenged by Brigham Young, who was more solidly entrenched. Strang led those who accepted him to Nauvoo, Illinois, and then Voree, Wisconsin, before deciding that God wanted him to bring his flock to Beaver Island.

Producing mysterious brass plates from the ground, and receiving directives from God, Strang formed a colony on Beaver Island in 1948. It grew year by year, and soon had the numbers to elect Strang to the state legislature. Trouble with the "gentiles" led to the "War of Whiskey Point", which the Mormons won by firing a canon at the unruly gang gathered at the trading post. By the early 1850s, most of the non-Mormons had left the Island. The ensuing degree of absolute power went to Strang's head, and rumors spread about Mormon atrocities. Strang had himself crowned king, and began taking additional wives. Attempts to oust him by legal means failed, and in 1856 he was assassinated by two disgruntled followers. His people were driven off the Island by an unruly mob from Mackinac Island, which was instigated by speculators eager to grab the land. During their 8-year occupancy, the Mormons cleared and cultivated the ground, built roads and houses, and changed the Island from a wilderness to a moderate outpost of civilization. But fate conspired to keep them from reaping the benefits of their toil.

Beaver Island was blessed to be near some of the best fishing grounds in the world. The Mormons had excluded the gentiles from partaking in this bounty, but once the Mormons were gone, Irish fishermen began to appear. They came from Gull Island, Mackinac Island, various port cities on the mainland, and County Donegal in Ireland. Once they settled in, they wrote to their families and friends about "America's Emerald Isle."

Over the following three decades, the population grew in surges, taking on a decidedly Irish flavor. Ordinary conversations, as well as services in the Catholic Church, were conducted in Gaelic. Of the 881 residents in 1880, there were 141 Gallaghers, 123 Boyles, and 90 O'Donnells recorded in the census. Closely knit, isolated from the rest of the world during the winter, this community developed a unique identity.

Because they controlled the nearby fishing grounds, the economy thrived. By the mid 1880s Beaver Island had become the largest supplier of fresh-water fish in the country. But the invention (1872) and proliferation of the steam tug posed a severe threat. Suddenly fishermen from mainland ports could cross to the grounds, lay five miles of nets, and cross back before dark. No sooner had the Island fishermen adjusted to the loss of their monopoly than a second blow befell them: a sudden drastic reduction in the supply of fish, starting in 1886. Due to over fishing, the harvest declined to half its previous rate by 1893.

This problem affected the entire Great Lakes. Michigan started a hatcheries program. This helped, but not enough, so in 1897 a law closing the season during the fall spawning period was passed. The Beaver Island fisherman, notoriously independent, announced that this did not apply to them, so in 1898 a warden was dispatched. He leased a boat in Charlevoix and headed for the Island in the first no-fishing week. A fisherman who was out lifting his nets by the light of the moon saw the warden approach. He tried to flee, but the warden, firing on him with a "Winchester cannon," gave chase. Eventually the fisherman's boat was too damaged to continue, and he was caught and arrested and his equipment confiscated. This became known as "the Battle of the Beavers." Islanders' intractability was reduced, but streaks of it could still be observed for the next hundred years.

Beaver Island has had more than its share of charismatic personalities, such as Father Peter Gallagher and "Doctor" Protar. Father Gallagher became the Island priest in 1865. A man of the people, he quickly came to dominate Island life. He settled disputes, loaned money, arranged marriages, carried on with the bachelors, acquired vast holdings, owned the merchant ship Hattie Fisher, and became an avid hunter and fisherman. He won a pair of horses in a marksmanship contest, and challenged a man to a fistfight in the St. Ignatius chapel, forcing its closure by drawing blood. When the Bishop tried to have him removed, the Bishop's men were threatened by the priest's flock. He was always a figure of controversy, but was generally respected and loved until he died in 1898.

Feodor Protar had almost the opposite temperament. Arriving five years before Father Gallagher's death, this newspaper editor and talented actor wanted to change his life in order to undertake a spiritual quest. He bought an old cabin on Sloptown Road, where he strove for self-sufficiency. He did everything he could for everyone he met, including performing medical services for those too poor or too distant for the doctor in St. James. Despite his objections, he was known as "Doctor Protar." Somewhat of a recluse, and a follower of the precepts of Tolstoy, this elderly immigrant came to be regarded as a saint. When he died in 1925, his admirers built a stone-and-iron tomb on Bonner's Bluff for their "heaven-sent friend."

Despite the Island's poor soil, farming played an important role because of the cost of shipping. Farms near Four Corners and on Sloptown Road, many in fields cleared by the Mormons, operated from the 1860s until the 1950s. In addition, excess crops from the Israelite farms on High Island in the 1910s and 20s were sold on the streets of St. James.

Logging too has always played a role, with small groups providing cordwood, cedar ties, and tan bark, but in 1901 the Beaver Island Lumber Company went into business in a way that dwarfed all of the other operations before and since. They hired 125 men, bought and built a complex of docks, erected a mill, and built housing on Freesoil Avenue, some of which still stands. They ran a track to Donegal Bay and then south for over ten miles, and had three steam engines hauling carloads of logs to their mill. Ships picked up shaves, shingles, boards, and slabwood and took these products to Detroit and Chicago. The overloaded trains pushed sideways as they rounded the many curves, widening the tracks. Derailments were common. One time a train tipped over, crushing the engineer.

Just as some of those who had built the Island's two lighthouses or worked at the Coast Guard station had stayed after their job was done, so too did some of the loggers when the Lumber Company closed its operation and picked up its tracks in 1916. At the turn of the century the population of the Island began to develop more variety. Father Zugelder, the German priest who replaced Father Gallagher, was well-accepted into the diversifying community.

Communities on Garden and High reached their zenith before WW II. Churches, schools, sawmills, docks, stores, and homes were built on each of these nearby islands. Native Americans lived and worked in cooperation with the whites. But rising economic pressures made this way of life increasingly more untenable, and both islands were abandoned. Their trails remain, kept open by the DNR, the Game Club, and an abundance of hikers who occasionally come upon an old car, a grove of apple trees, or the rotting remains of a cabin or barn.

The improvements being implemented in other communities in the early part of this century came late to Beaver Island. In 1905 the Island was connected to the mainland with a 200-ton telegraph cable. Regular winter mail service was not instituted until 1926; before that, it was dependent on dog- and horse-sled trips across the ice. A power plant was built in 1939, and Island homes finally could have electricity. Previously the Parish Hall, the Beaver Hotel, and the Coast Guard Station had installed their own small generators.

Perhaps because of this backwardness, the Island was always a popular destination for those tourists who were willing to rough it in their search for a more pristine lifestyle. Local merchants promoted tourism as early as 1878. Fast-talking developers sold Island lots in the lobbies of Chicago hotels in the early 1900s. Tracts of beach on the Island's east side were turned into lots for vacation cottages in the 1920s and 30s.

Despite this boost, the Island's economy was still dependent on commercial fishing. The harbor at St. James was ringed with docks, net sheds, ice houses, and boat-building sheds. When the lamprey eel began to decimate the trout and whitefish population in the 1940s, the Island was in trouble. It had been losing population anyway as the newer generations went off to make their mark in the world, particularly in Chicago, but now almost everyone left. The once-thriving community of well over 1,000 residents dwindled to less than 200, and people were afraid the school and medical center would be closed and they would all have to leave. But in the late 1970s a new wave of tourism reversed this trend. As the economy of Michigan improved, along with the pressure and tension of taking advantage of it, more and more people discovered Beaver Island, fell in love with it, and bought property or a home.

Today, construction is the dominant industry, with carpenters as plentiful as fishermen once were. After years of insularity, during which ideas offered by newcomers were sneered at, the Island residents have become much more accepting of notions from outside. The newcomers have helped raise the standard of living, and made life more interesting, Yesterday's backwardness has given way to an enlightened infrastructure, with progressive planning commissions, an active Chamber of Commerce, Historical Society, Preservation Association, Property Owners' Association, volunteer fire department, and a well-trained emergency medical service. And the time-honored tradition of picking up news at the bar has been replaced, to a great extent, by searching the internet. Daily activities have come to closely resemble those of the mainland, with the primary difference being that they are enacted in a distant place that is proud of its unique and variegated natural endowment.

Overview of the Five Themes of Geography

Geography is more than memorizing names and places. Geographers organize space in much the same way that historians organize time. To help organize space, geographers are concerned with asking three important questions about things in the world:

  • Where is it?
  • Why is it there?
  • What are the consequences of it being there?

The five themes of geography help answer these questions:

  • Location: Where is it located?
  • Place: What is it like there?
  • Human/Environment Interaction: What is the relationship between humans and their environment?
  • Movement: How and why are places connected with one another?
  • Regions: How and why is one area similar to another?

Location: Position on Earth's Surface

Absolute and Relative location are two ways of describing the positions and distribution of people and places on the earth's surface.

Absolute Location answers the question: Where is it exactly?
Absolute location is nothing more than a dot on a map or globe.
Exact Location discussion points:

  • Select a city at random and find the exact coordinates on the globe or a map
  • Pick to coordinates at random and find where they intersect on a map
  • Find the exact location of your hometown on a map.

Relative Location discussion points:

  • Describe the city you previously selected in terms of its relative location - near a mountain range or body of water, etc.
  • Describe the place you located at random in terms of its relative location to its surroundings
  • Describe your hometown in terms of its relative location to the next closest town.
  • Discuss how the location of your town has changed in importance, for example as a tourist site or an economically advantageous place to locate a business, or as societies' attitudes have changed, etc.

Place: Physical and Human Characteristics

The theme of place addresses this question: What is it like there? This theme considers the characteristics that make one place different from all other places on earth. Geographers describe a place by two kinds of characteristics: physical and human.

Physical Characteristics of a place make up its natural environment and are derived from geological, hydrological, atmospheric, and biological processes. They include landforms, bodies of water, climate, soils, natural vegetation, and animal life.

Human Characteristics of a place come from human ideas and actions. They include bridges, houses, and parks. Human characteristics of place also include land use, density of population, language patterns, religion, architecture, and political systems.

Physical Characteristics: describes where you live physically

How and why are areas different?

Specific distinguishing characteristics that make an area different like landforms, water ways, natural resources, climate, etc.

Human Characteristics: describes things like neighborhoods, industries, and houses

  • How have people changed an area and what conditions do those people life in?
  • Specific infrastructural characteristics like roads, canals and utilities, and specific social/political/economics conditions people have created for themselves.

Discussion points:

  • How would you describe where you live physically? Is your place flat or hilly, hot or cold, wet or dry? What natural resources are found there?
  • What are some of the human characteristics that describe your place? For example, what type of homes are there? Are patterns of land-use different from those in other parts of the country? What types of industry are found, and how might they be different from industries in other parts of the country?

Human/Environment Interaction: Shaping the Landscape

The physical and human characteristics of a place provide keys to understanding the interrelationships between people and their environments. This geographic theme addresses this question: What is the relationship between humans and the environment? Three concepts underlie human/environment relationships:

  • Humans depend on the environment: The natural environment is made up of living things and nonliving things. Humans depend on the natural environment for their basic needs: food, shelter, and clothing
  • Humans modify the environment: People modify the natural environment to meet their needs. For example, they build dams, plow and irrigate fields, and dig mines. They build houses, schools, and shopping center on land with natural resources that they harvest or manufacture into products.
  • Humans adapt to the environment: Humans have settled in virtually every corner of the world by successfully adapting to various natural settings. For example, people who live in the northeastern United States use heating units to keep their homes warm in winter. The ways people choose to adapt to their settings reflect their economic, political, ethnic, and technological abilities. Studying geography furthers appreciation of our natural environment and of our cultural differences.

Discussion Points:

  • In preparing to go to school today, what types of human/environmental interactions did you experience, like using water to brush your teeth or walking across a bridge over a stream.
  • Can you site some natural resources that may have been exploited, like the deforestation of the timberlands?
  • Do you notice any changes in the landscape and in animal habitats? Are there changes in the air, water, and soil?

Movement: Humans Interacting on the Earth

The theme "movement" addresses this question:

  • How and why are places connected with one another?
  • Relationships between people in different places are shaped by constant movement of people, ideas, materials and physical systems such as wind, fire, tornado, flood, etc.
  • Our world is in constant motion, constantly changing. Like blood flowing through our bodies, movement brings life to a place.

Discussion points:

  • What examples of movement of people, goods, or ideas do you see in your area?
  • Has immigration or migration had an impact on your area? When and why did it happen?
  • What are the transportation routes in your area? How have they evolved and why?

Regions: How They Form and Change

A region is a basic unit of geographic study. It is defined as an area that has unifying characteristics. Regions are distinguished by their similarity and differences. Most regions are significantly different from adjoining areas.

Some regions are distinguished by physical characteristics. Physical characteristics include landforms, climate, soil, and natural vegetation. For example, the peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains form a physical region.

Some regions are distinguished by human characteristics. These may include economic, social, political, and cultural characteristics. The highly urbanized Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. can be considered a human region. Other regions are combinations of physical and human characteristics, for example, the South, Scandinavia, and the Midwest.

Boundaries between regions can be vague. Regions are generally thought of as large areas, such as the Corn Belt in the Midwestern United States or sub-Saharan Africa. A region can be as small as a classroom learning center, a neighborhood, an industrial park, or a recreational area.

Discussion points:

  • How many different regions can you identify within your area?
  • How many larger regions does your area belong to?