The 12 northernmost counties of California and seven southernmost counties of Oregon comprise a geographical area rich in mineral and timber resources, including the largest copper belt in the west. The region’s inhabitants refer to the area as the state of “Jefferson,” and think of the area as both culturally and geographically unique. So unique, in fact, there has been talk of secession from California and Oregon to form a 51st state.
What triggered this desire for secession; what are the odds of it succeeding; and what are the potential impacts for the rest of California?
“We want and deserve more local control,” says Brian Peterson, member of the Jefferson Action Committee and administrator of www.jeffersonstate.com. “We are sitting on vast amounts of natural resources that are begging to be utilized in a responsible manner for the betterment of our country.”
The eagerness of the California legislature to pass “conservation” laws to “protect” a rural area that they are unfamiliar with spawns even more feelings of local discontent. State intervention has caused the loss of jobs and homes for hundreds of families, who have been in the region for generations.
“A lot of people who have survived the regulations of the past 20 years are frustrated and angry,” relates Marcia Armstrong, Supervisor of Siskiyou County’s fifth district. “Through a series of state and federal regulations such as the Northwest Forest Plan, Endangered Species Acts, Porter Cologne and Clean Water Acts, the economy of much of the area has been choked off. There are many pockets of real poverty and communities that are suffering.”
These sentiments are not recent. The earliest incident began in 1941, when frustrated locals, sitting on a hot bed of natural resources, could not bring them to market because California and Oregon had no interest in building or maintaining suitable roads in the area. Gilbert Gable, then-mayor of Port Orford, Oregon, proposed the Oregon counties of Curry, Josephine, Jackson, and Klamath, together with the California counties of Del Norte, Siskiyou, and Modoc should band together to form a new state. After rejecting proposed names such as Bonanza, Orofino, Curiskiyou, Siscurdelmo and Discontent, they settled on the name of Jefferson, in honor of the author of the US Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.
On November 27, 1941, in a tongue-in-cheek move which garnered national publicity, several men bearing hunting rifles stopped traffic along US Route 99 as if they were the guardians of an actual state border, and distributed pamphlets which announced the “State of Jefferson” to be in “patriotic rebellion against the states of California and Oregon” and their intention to “secede every Thursday until further notice.” The part-time rebellion soon went on hiatus following the death of Mayor Gable and the attack on Pearl Harbor, where many of the original secessionists went on to fight in WWII.
Adopting as their state seal the symbol of a gold pan marked with two X’s, which symbolizes the people of Jefferson being double crossed by Salem and Sacramento, the respective capitals of Oregon and California, the sentiment of rural independence and rugged individualism stays strong in Jefferson. Many shops brandish this seal and at least a dozen FM radio stations of the region refer to themselves as “Jefferson Public Radio.”
But what are the real odds of secession being successful, and how many people really have the means to get behind it on a serious level?
“Sure, [the people of Jefferson] would like relief from the constant barrage of regulations and big government,” Armstrong says, who considers the secession more of a symbol than a movement. “Since we have little to no clout in the legislature and the media tends to ignore our story, the frustration manifests in a wish for greater control and cultural respect—e.g. the state of Jefferson symbol. The area does not actually have the economy, population or resources to support a separate state. The yearning is simply that.”
Others, however, remain hopeful, as Peterson notes his website has received a great deal of correspondence from people inspired by the struggle of Jefferson state. Certainly, the forming of a 51st state could reduce the amount of state tax that California and Oregon could collect. On the other hand, part of the gripe is that the taxes collected from these areas do not benefit the people of Jefferson at all.
Although Peterson concurs that the probability of secession is low, he advocates that it would be a positive situation for everyone if it were to become a reality.
“They would be free from the burden of ‘carrying’ (in their opinion) the rural counties. They would have greater representation also. It’s a win-win.”