The Mythical State of Jefferson
Issue #48, March 2000
"The State of Jefferson is a natural division geographically, topographically, and emotionally. In many ways, a world unto itself: self-sufficient with enough water, fish, wildlife, farm, orchard land, mineral resources, and gumption to exist on its own."
— Governor John L. Childs, inaugural speech, Dec. 4, 1941
"The State of Jefferson may be a state of mind, but underlying issues cannot be denied."
— State of Jefferson website
You will not find Jefferson on a map. You may meet people who live in it who do not know it exists. It is invisible to eyes looking at road signs along major highways. Among the many documents relating to its existence, none agree on or clearly define its boundaries. The local historical society's book about it is titled The Mythical State of Jefferson.
Yet it is a very real place with a sense of regional identity so strong that for many of its citizens it has supplanted the officially recognized states and counties of its area. This identity has been built on a layer of geographical awareness that is distinct from the public mapping that delineates the towns and freeways found on AAA maps. Its identity, since the early days of white settlement of North America, has been resilient with the passage of time. The State of Jefferson separatist movement is a case study of a movement's adaptability over time. Although the motivations and expressions of separatist sentiment have varied tremendously in the past hundred and fifty years, they have not disappeared. The citizens of the area who once expressed their anti-federalism through Civil War-era tax strikes have now joined the culture industry and the on-line world. The battle for bureaucratic recognition peaked and subsided nearly sixty years ago. But today the State has become entrenched as a cultural institution -- with its own banking and public radio system -- which amounts to a successful side-step of such "official" sanction.
The impressive durability of the State of Jefferson movement invites a look at the characteristics that contribute to its success. Among the features that distinguish it from other political movements are the use of pranksterism to make political points, and a fluidity of territorial boundary. In the State of Jefferson, political movements do not need to be conducted with utter seriousness in order to have effect, and a territorial movement does not necessarily need to have a firm grip on where its territory physically begins or ends. At the same time the movement has its roots in the anti-federalist secession movements that appeared periodically in the Revolutionary War-era eastern seaboard.
The State of Jefferson is in the region of southern Oregon and northern California, in the areas of the Siskiyou and Trinity mountain ranges, and the Klamath and Rogue river valleys. As far back as the 1850s, people living in that area were alienated from the distant regional authorities in California. After Oregon was incorporated as a state in 1859, miners in the area refused allegiance to either state government and declined to pay taxes. Around the time of the Civil War some settlers were interested in creating a northern haven for slavery, but separatist sentiments were fueled most commonly by the poor quality of infrastructure. Residents of both the California and the Oregon portions of the region felt that their state governments in distant Sacramento and Salem did not fairly represent them, and did not distribute infrastructure funding equitably to the area. The poor road quality directly compromised the ability of people in the region to earn a living off the lumber, fishing, and other harvesting businesses that are available in the area. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several waves of mounting frustration at the region's isolation and wretched infrastructure culminated in a great push toward the secession of 1941.
In 1941 the mayor of Port Orford, Oregon, Gilbert Gable, declared before the Curry County court that the four southern Oregon border counties (Klamath, Josephine, Jackson, and Curry) and the three northern California border counties (Modoc, Siskiyou, and Del Norte) were seceding from their respective states and forming the 49th state -- Jefferson. He was strongly supported by local timber and mining workers, whose work was stymied by impassable roads and bridges leading to the timber and mining areas. The Yreka, California 20/30 Club issued a "Proclamation of Independence," and the group members took action to block Highway 99 at the borders of the fledgling state, handing out copies of their document to passing motorists. An election was called, and John Childs, Superior Court Judge of Yreka, was elected acting governor of Jefferson. These steps commanded national attention, and the media were dispatched. Life magazine sent a reporter and camera crew, as did Paramount News -- a major producer of newsreels -- while the San Francisco Chronicle sent Stanton Delaplane, who later won a Pulitzer award for his coverage of the movement. The New York Times featured daily articles on the State of Jefferson, and by early December of 1941, a complete newsreel was assembled. It was scheduled for national distribution December 8.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7 abruptly interrupted the secession movement. The newsreel was shelved and never distributed, and suddenly the state governments of both Oregon and California were inspired to fix the infrastructure of their distant counties because they needed the timber and mining resources to fight the war. The inspiration for the secession movement faded until the mid-1950s, when disagreements with Sacramento over water rights and hunting policies re-ignited it.
In the 1960s and '70s, separatist sentiment continued in the form of locally published books and journals that promoted the region's distinct identity and livability. Then in the 1980s and '90s, the secessionist tradition settled into the cultural sphere and began to be expressed as a theme of identity, rather than as a traditional political movement. Businesses began naming themselves Jefferson this and Jefferson that, and currently the State of Jefferson is in cyberspace.
The State of Jefferson web page greets its visitors with this declarative welcome: "You are now entering the State of Jefferson." In the caption for the map that is the frontispiece of the book The Mythical State of Jefferson (1965), the author writes:
"No one is actually certain where the exact boundaries of the State are located, though it is generally agreed that they stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the high plateau beyond the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges on the east, and between the 40th and 44th parallels."
This sentiment has been expressed elsewhere, as by 19th-century miners who lived in the area:
"They thought of themselves as a unit distinct from the remainder of their respective states and acted accordingly. The citizens of Yreka and Happy Camp, California would vote in elections being held in Jacksonville and Waldo, Oregon, and vice versa. They would also claim either state as their own, depending on which state's tax collector was at hand. In reality, they did not recognize, or chose to ignore, the state and territory boundaries."
The book's author is a historian and geologist who writes of the prehistory of the area, its geologic formation, and its native inhabitants. His map of the area has no border, and the boundaries of territory he addresses are no more concrete than the territorial boundaries presented in any other geology book.
In the case of the miners, the State of Jefferson existed wherever there were miners who bore no allegiance to either California or Oregon. The geography of the state, then, was consistent with the geography of the mining communities, inherently fluctuating. At times, when the issue driving the movement was water rights, different groups of people inhabiting different sections of related territory were the focal point of the movement. Since the mid-1800s, the capital of the "provisional" state has variously been located in both Oregon and California, both in coastal towns and inland towns, depending on where the strongest impetus toward secession existed at the time. In addition to "Jefferson," the new territory has variously been called "Shasta," "Orofino," "Colorado" (before there was another Colorado), "Siskiyou," "Mittelwestcoastia," and a host of other names. But from reading the documentation of this history, the impression is not one of fragmented partisanship or sectionalism. Except for resentment against the early Civil War-era whites-only activists, there does not seem to be any sense of contradiction between one impulse and another. The impression is of numerous expressions of separatist sentiment, with numerous names, specific motivations, and territorial boundaries, bounded by a common impulse to reject the non-local state authorities.
It's true that the most bureaucratic of all the waves of secession fever, the 1941 movement, was so certain of its boundaries that when Lassen county, in northeastern California, expressed interest in joining, the organizers mailed the Lassen county people a bottle of castor oil with a note reading "go start your own movement." But this certainty is the exception that proves the rule about the State of Jefferson: it is ultimately a state of mind.
In 1941 the organizers of that year's big movement declared that the "provisional territory" named State of Jefferson would "secede every Thursday until recognized." They went out to Highway 99 where it entered the boundary of Jefferson that was being recognized at the time and covered the highway signs with sheets proclaiming "State of Jefferson." Standing by the altered signs, they put up a roadblock and stopped all traffic to hand out copies of their Proclamation of Independence. Most people passing through took it as a joke, which didn't displease the activists.
They declared that the new state would be free of sales tax, property tax, and income tax. The state would be paid for by opening red light districts and gambling halls. They declared that the wooden nickel would be the "coin of the realm." When their radical declarations succeeded in attracting the national media, they celebrated by letting the kids out of school for a day and staging a giant parade for the benefit of the cameras. The kids in the parade carried homemade signs with such slogan as "Our Roads Are Not Passable--They're Hardly Jack-Assable!" and "Pack Mules Pay No Gas Tax." When the news media interviewed the Klamath county government, which had been left out of the movement, Klamath replied that they were not interested and would rather secede to Portugal "because they were a small county that could be whipped any time." The ralliers also carried banners depicting the great seal of the State of Jefferson: not the image of some hero or a positive symbol of the fruits of the region, but a logo of two Xs that symbolize the double-cross that the area had been dealt by the state governments in Salem and Sacramento.
This general levity that characterizes the movement contradicts a fundamental precept of political action: that political action is backed by a threat of violence. This was warfare in a guerrilla fashion, operating theatrically and contrary to expected norms of defiant behavior. With the authoritarian dimension largely absent, the State of Jefferson movement, particularly in the 1940s, was more like anarchy than it was like other American anti-federalist initiatives. Whether they realized it or not, the State of Jefferson activists had taken their battle outside the territorial realm and declared a war for consciousness. Luckily for the 1941 bunch, the world was about to turn into a place where the battle for consciousness is the battle most easily won.
The trajectory of a secession movement such as Jefferson's is predictable. The United States' governmental infrastructure is very deeply entrenched, and is fed by the apathy and indifference of the general public. Although from time to time some people in some areas may redefine themselves socially or politically, one of the United States' greatest strengths is its lumbering ability to ignore and outlast such movements, like a sleeping elephant out-napping an angry bee.
In an area of North Carolina known as Upper East Tennessee, a strong secession movement calling itself the State of Franklin was inspired, born, lived, and then died in the 1780s. Following the revolutionary war, the citizens of those parts were not inclined to trust any governmental authority more than they had trusted the British. They staged a tax revolt against the North Carolina authority, resisted joining the union, and for a time considered forming their own country and allying with Spain. Like the State of Jefferson movement, the State of Franklin movement was characterized by tax revolt and the name of a "founding father" (though unlike Jefferson, they got his written permission to use his name).
North Carolina at first cooperated, and ceded the territory to the new federal government that was being organized. But the North Carolina state government rethought its decision and reclaimed the territory, by which time the region was awash with new settlers who didn't have the same issues with the authorities as the original settlers had. The secession movement vanished. A recent book about it entitled The Lost State of Franklin sums up the fate of the movement in its title.
In contrast, the State of Jefferson movement has been remarkably sustainable. Outlasting the various battles for "official" recognition has been the State's cultural identity. Rather than withering in the face of an impervious state authority, Jefferson has removed its protest to other venues. I don't know if Jefferson is still seceding every Thursday, but it is operating a bank, a jazz band, and a public radio station that is heard every day. The region is filled with businesses using the name, such as Jefferson State plumbing, sanitation, and mortgage companies.
This dissociation between the strength of the regional identity and its expression on the ideological plane is the locus of the flexibility and endurance of the movement. The State of Jefferson is so undefined as a territory, that the very official Josephine County Historical Society, in its 1965 book on the area by Jack Sutton, titled The Mythical State of Jefferson states in the epigraph that "No one is actually certain where the exact boundaries of the State are located." Yet the book goes on to explain the archaeology, prehistory, native history, and settlement history of the region.
These strategies have succeeded in taking a regional secessionist battle -- inherently a territorial battle -- and removing it from the territorial plane. It has morphed into a "battle" for cultural consciousness. The phrase 'State of Jefferson' has become more like a brand than like apolitical movement (or better, a little bit of both), ideally suited for the political climate of the millennial era.
In this sense, the State of Jefferson movement shares its success strategy with the Walt Disney Company. By creating the brand-based town of Celebration, Florida, the Disney company has succeeded in inserting a new geography between the layers of public infrastructural boundaries. In this new geography, the sense of place, or statehood, is achieved through a 'state of mind.' Similarly the State of Jefferson promotional literature explains, "The State of Jefferson may be a state of mind..." yet goes onto say "but underlying issues cannot be denied." From this I gather that the State of Jefferson does not intend to abandon its quest to have political issues addressed in a forum that would allow them to actually be acted on.
In 1995 the State of Jefferson was finally recognized by the federal government with the creation of a Scenic Byway traversing the road between Yreka, California, and Cave Junction, Oregon. This makes sense, given that road quality has been a long-standing core item of dispute between the Jeffersonians and the official authorities. The government finally addressed the complaints of those miners and timber workers of decades ago: that their region received a disproportionately poor share of resources for road-building. There is a certain gracefulness to this action, even in its hollowness. A Scenic Byway. Roads? You want roads? We'll give you roads. Roads that go on the maps, where RVs can find them. Roads that could get photographed for National Geographic. Roads that laugh at the long-gone desperation of labor to get the infrastructure they need to do their work. Roads that are more entertainment than infrastructure.
The Scenic Byway brings the dialogue between the State of Jefferson and the official bureaucracy full circle. It's almost as if the Feds thought about the most poetic non-response to the secession movement. For when Jefferson activists removed their activism from the territorial sphere to the ideological sphere, the government crafted a reply that spoke directly on a territorial plane, yet was at the same time removed to the sphere of entertainment.
I suppose that this is apt. All cynicism aside, I do not believe that the United States is yet prepared to interpret a political movement that is a synthesis of rural anti-federalism and labor activism, one that in some ways is classically conservative and in other ways classically progressive (yet at the same time is not quite either). If the State of Jefferson had not removed itself to the cultural sphere, it would have risked following the route of such separatist movements as the Montana Freemen and the Republic of Texas. Those movements relied on fairly narrow bands of support that were not deeply entrenched in the culture. I support the State of Jefferson continuing to work in the long term toward greater self-definition, and towards legal separation from Oregon and California if that is the population's wish. I believe that they are entrenching their movement in the region's culture in a way that can make such a transition possible. One jazz band at a time.