The 2010 documentary “How to Start Your Own Country” explores what happens when people decide to declare their little piece of the earth (or in the case of The Principality of Sealand, a platform six miles off the coast of Britain) an independent country. The film raises fascinating questions about what makes a country a country, a question you may have never thought to ask (I hadn’t). What’s perhaps most surprising is that even the United Nations doesn’t have a clear idea of what constitutes a legitimate country–they can’t even say for certain how many countries there are in the world: who considers what legitimate is highly variable it turns out. The Czech Republic, for example, doesn’t recognize Lichtenstein as a country and yet Lichtenstein is a member of the U.N. so does that make it a country or not?

The film made me think of my longstanding interest in utopias. Most utopias are communities, not countries. I wonder why someone chooses a community rather than a country to make the world anew? Sure, it’s easier to start a utopian community. You don’t have to print new money or establish any of the other public services and supports like a telephone system, post office, or financial system. But it’s also harder to subvert the existing social, cultural, and economic order, which many utopias, especially in the 19th century sought to do. It’s hard to break free of something you are dependent on, which must be part of the great appeal of micronations.

I was pleased to learn that Wisconsin has a micronation. It’s called Talossa and it’s located in Milwaukee. This isn’t Wisconsin’s first micronation, though.

In 1847, a breakaway Mormon leader named James Strang established a kingdom with himself as ruler (of course) on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. This was in the years before the Latter Day Saints had moved to Utah. After the death of Mormon founder Joseph Smith in 1844, Strang produced a document (that he forged) claiming that he had been selected by Smith to be his successor. The community split on the question of who to follow: Strang or Brigham Young. The majority followed Young but a group took Strang’s word for it and followed him to Wisconsin. They first founded a colony called Voree near Burlington, Wisconsin, and later established a kingdom on Beaver Island. It was there, on July 8, 1850, that Strang had himself crowned king, the only man in American history to have achieved that title. 

Attacks and in-fighting doomed Strang’s kingdom, however, and Strang himself was assassinated in 1856. The community soon broke up, ending an early chapter in Wisconsin micronation history. 

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