Wingfield Watson, loyal disciple of James Jesse Strang, was born in Ireland on April 22, 1828. He was the fourth of eleven children. Through the financial help of a brother in America, and other family members, he sailed to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1848.
He worked at hard jobs in high heat and suffered illness in St. Louis and New Orleans. While working in coal pits near St. Louis he borrowed a copy of Parley P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning to All Nations, his first encounter with the religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This profoundly moved Watson and he believed its principles to be the truth. Watson then moved to Wisconsin to work in lead mines. While there, he married a widow. He borrowed a copy of the book of Mormon, which he read while awaiting the return of ore cars. Then, he felt a stirring of his spirit and moved to Salt Lake City to live among Mormons. His wife traveled to St. Louis to seek news of Saints (Mormons) leading West. She was prompted to speak to a stranger who was a Mormon elder. Watson was soon baptized by this man.
Later while traveling he met Samuel Shaw, an elder from James Jesse Strang’s colony on Beaver Island, Michigan. With Shaw and his wife, Watson visited Nauvoo, witnessed the destruction of Mormon temple by non-believers. This moved Watson to impatiently desire living in a Mormon community. Thus, he traveled with Shaw to Beaver Island.
Upon arrival Watson greeted Strang, George Bronson and James Smith. Beaver Island was free of “Gentile vices” such as swearing, drunkenness, and fashions. Many adapted to the environment and came to love it. However, this peace was short-lived.
On June 18, 1856, Thomas Bedford and Alexander Wentworth murdered Strang. [See the collections of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Strangites) for further information on Strang.] A few days later, the Mormons were driven from the island by a lawless mob.
Watson fled on the ship, Keystone State, to Chicago with his wife and other Mormons. She had just borne a baby two days earlier. Later, Watson moved his family to Grant County, Wisconsin, where his mother and siblings had previously emigrated.
After a few years, Lorenzo Dow Hickey, one of Strang’s twelve apostles, persuaded Watson to move to Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Six years later, Hickey encouraged Watson to move to Northern Michigan. Hickey stayed in Coldwater while Watson moved to Boyne City, where he lived until 1891.
Once in Boyne City, Watson began preaching, writing, debating, and campaigning for his faith. This brought him into conflict with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ, led by Joseph Smith III. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ did not recognize the prophetic role of Strang. Watson wrote a number of letters and articles published in the Saints’ Herald, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ’s publication, including The Necessity of Baptism, and Of Having the Authority from God to Preach the Gospel, 1877. He then began to reprint essential Strang doctrines (publications). He issued about ten pamphlets protesting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ. In 1891, he debated Willard Blair, a Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ leader, in East Jordan (Mich.). The transcribed and verified debate was published as The Watson-Blair Debate Which Took Place at East Jordan, Michigan, Commencing October 22nd and Ending October 26th, 1891. Watson’s effort stimulated other defenders of the Strangite beliefs including Edward T. Couch, of Boyne City, who published seven volumes in Charlevoix County, Michigan.
In 1891, Watson moved to Spring Prairie, Wisconsin, near Voree, the site of the first Strangite settlement. He lived there until 1907 when he moved to Burlington, a town west of Voree. Before he died in 1897, Lorenzo Dow Hickey ordained Watson as presiding high priest in the church, a role he had, in effect, performed for many years. Watson returned to Beaver Island for the first and last time in 1919 at the age of 91. While there, he toured the island with Milo M. Quaife. Several letters of correspondence with Quaife are found in the collection.
Watson married the widow, Jane Thompson. They had at least three children: Cynthia, Gilbert, and Grace. Wingfield Watson died on October 29, 1922 at the age of 94. He was a man of admirable character and was respected by friends and foes alike. His faith was so strong that he left his property in trust for the next prophet sent by God to lead the Strangites. (This information is from Wingfield Watson--The Loyal Disciple of James J. Strang, by John Cumming, 1963.)