There are a few Americans who have achieved royal status the old-fashioned way (by marrying into a royal family), but there is an even smaller group that tried to gain a kingship through other means—like trying to seize absolute dominion over a group or a place before naming themselves king. As the United States is currently still a republic, these efforts have evidently been unsuccessful, but if you intend to set yourself up as a monarch, you might learn a bit from their example.
1. JOSIAH HARLAN, PRINCE OF GHOR (1838–1839)
Josiah Harlan was born in Pennsylvania in 1799 and developed an early love of adventure. He traveled overseas in 1820, and in 1824 he signed on with the British East India Company as a surgeon. After two years, he ended his contract with the British but stayed in India to travel.
After a few years of attempting to hire on with a local ruler, Harlan would work with both the Maharaja of Punjab and, most famously, with Dost Mohammad, a warlord who ruled most of modern-day Afghanistan—and the man who Harlan was sent to depose (but didn't). The first American citizen to enter Afghanistan, Harlan was also the first to command an army there.
While governing parts of central Asia for different rulers, Harlan became fascinated with Afghanistan’s Hazara people. The Hazara, for their part, were impressed with the discipline and innovation Harlan had brought to his military campaigns, as well as Harlan’s progressive opposition to slavery and gender inequality.
Mohammad Reffee, a local ruler, struck a deal with Harlan. He gave up his crown to Harlan, making him Prince of Ghor (a province in central Afghanistan with complex, rugged terrain and a mix of ethnic groups) in return for Harlan’s military expertise and the expansion of the realm which he would share with Mohammad Reffee. Harlan, who served foreign princes and fought their wars without qualm, raised the American flag and began drilling Ghor’s army.
Harlan had barely begun organizing his little kingdom when the British invaded Afghanistan, fearful of Dost Mohammad’s cozy relations with Russia. They were unimpressed with Harlan’s newly minted royal title and forced him to leave the country. Back in the United States, he raised a battalion to fight for the Union in the Civil War. His career barely survived a court martial orchestrated by political enemies, but he left the army after a crippling illness in 1862. Nine years later, Harlan died in San Francisco.
2. JAMES STRANG, KING OF BEAVER ISLAND (1850–1856)
James Strang entered the Mormon religion shortly before its founder, Joseph Smith, was killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois. Strang quickly joined the struggle to assume the church’s leadership. Despite his shaky credentials, he built a following by rejecting polygamy and claiming to have a letter from Joseph Smith appointing him leader. When Strang began moving his headquarters to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan in 1847, he had up to 12,000 followers.
As Strang consolidated power over his isolated followers, his governance became more rigid. After preaching monogamy, he reversed himself and took five wives. His followers bullied and seized property from non-Mormons living on the island. On July 4, 1850, a mob of fishermen gathered to threaten Strang—but retreated when Strang unveiled a cannon. Four days later, Strang had crowned himself as the ruler of the Kingdom of God.
As a result of this action (and accusations of stealing mail and counterfeiting American coins), Strang was put on trial for treason after an investigation ordered by President Millard Fillmore. Strang was acquitted, and then ran for election to the Michigan state legislature, where he served with distinction beginning in 1853; he helped organize several of Michigan’s counties and battled for the rights of Michigan’s Indian tribes.
This made him many enemies, notably traders who wanted Strang to stop interfering with their lucrative illegal alcohol sales to Indians. Strang’s own followers were disillusioned with his high-handedness—several left the church after receiving floggings, while others who were excommunicated wanted revenge. On June 16, 1856, Strang was attacked and mortally wounded by two of his former followers. The crime was observed by the nearby U.S. Navy gunboat USS Michigan, which did not interfere.
While Strang was on his deathbed, many locals sailed to Beaver Island and forced Strang’s followers to flee the island at gunpoint. 2,600 people, stripped of their property and possessions, were exiled on July 5. Strang died four days later, and his assassins were never punished. The people of his short-lived kingdom never recovered what was stolen from them.
3. JAMES HARDEN-HICKEY, BARON OF TRINIDAD (1893–1895)
Born in San Francisco in 1854, James Harden-Hickey moved to Paris as a child. There, he became enamored with Napoleon III and, after France became a republic, started a pro-Royalist paper. This led him into many duels, but after his patron died, the paper folded and Harden-Hickey left France. On Harden-Hickey’s round-the-world trip he visited India, where he became a Buddhist, and saw Trinidad, a tiny uninhabited island off the coast of Brazil (and a different island than the Trinidad partnered with Tobago). The island had been explored by both the Portuguese and the British hundreds of years prior, but there was no clear claim to it. Upon his return to Paris, he met and charmed the daughter of one of America’s richest men. They were married in 1891.
In 1893, Harden-Hickey decided he wanted to rebel against his father-in-law, and remembered the island he had visited. He proclaimed himself Baron of Trinidad and began selling government bonds, despite official disapproval and public ridicule. He began busying himself with the minor details of royalty, including postage stamp design and an order of knighthood, and optimistically bought a ship to transport colonists.
Harden-Hickey’s claim was put to the test in 1895, when Great Britain seized the island to use as a telegraph station. The seizure threatened war between Britain and Brazil, while Harden-Hickey was ignored completely. Harden-Hickey complained to the U.S. State Department, which published his letter and exposed him to a new round of ridicule. Harden-Hickey’s heart was broken by this onslaught and he became deeply depressed. After a last-ditch effort to cover his expenses by selling his wife’s ranch fell through, he committed suicide in 1898.
4. JOSHUA NORTON, EMPEROR OF THE UNITED STATES AND PROTECTOR OF MEXICO
No list of self-declared American royals can be complete without including Joshua Norton. Born in Britain in 1820 and raised in South Africa, he emigrated to the United States during the California Gold Rush. He soon built a fortune, but lost it all and was bankrupted within a decade.
Norton, who had perhaps gone insane and certainly had nothing left to lose, declared himself Emperor of the United States on September 17, 1859. Humored by the local press, Norton gained local notoriety and his proclamations were often published in San Francisco newspapers. Before long, Norton received celebrity treatment from the city’s restaurants and theaters. His long (if absurd) reign was not without troubles. Norton was arrested in 1867, and was due to be committed to an insane asylum before public outrage forced the police to release him. The police chief noted that Norton “had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.”
Norton’s sense of duty went beyond this; he walked constantly through San Francisco, inspecting government officials and the condition of the city. Some accounts state that he prevented a race riot on one occasion by standing between a mob and a Chinese neighborhood, head bowed in prayer, until the mob dispersed.
Norton collapsed on the street and died on January 8, 1880. Local businessmen paid for a funeral, and as many as 10,000 people attended. After his death, Norton’s gentle and sweet brand of delusion made him a countercultural hero.