There have been many attempts throughout the history of the United States to carve new states out of preexisting ones. However, few get very far off the ground or gain significant public support. The only successful attempts to create new states out of preexisting lands have been Vermont from New York, Maine from Massachusetts, and West Virginia from Virginia. In the 1930s and 1940s, though, there was a significant attempt to create a state out of the region of southwestern Oregon and far northern California. This is the story of the state of Jefferson.
The history of this region is somewhat different from the rest of either Oregon or California. While both California and Oregon experienced significant gold rushes during the mid to late 19th century, the area of Jefferson remained mostly rural. In the 1870s, the United States fought a brief war with the native Modoc and Klamath tribes that resulted in moving the tribes to reservations, but little settlement followed. Going into the 20th century, the abundance of mineral and timber wealth was largely ignored by the state governments in Sacramento and Salem because of the ruggedness of the terrain. The national railroads and beginnings of the national highway system in the 1930s continued to largely ignore the region. A growing segment of the rural population decided that the only way to get federal money spent on improving the region’s infrastructure and bring some attention to the area was to petition to form its own state.
On November 17, 1941, representatives from Siskiyou, Lassen, Modoc, and Del Norte Counties in California and Curry County in Oregon met in the town of Yreka, California to work out a proposal for secession from both states and the formation of the state of Jefferson as the 49th state. This was a daunting prospect. The requirements for forming a new state are that the legislatures of any states comprising territory that would enter the new state have to agree, and then the new state has to petition Congress for granting it statehood and the formation of a state constitution. The Proclamation of Independence was a lofty goal from the beginning. The new state was proposed to have no income or sales tax, and the income for the state government was to come from a royalty on mining and timber developments. Soon, however, popular opinion in the region grew toward state secession and the prospective borders of Jefferson grew to all the border countries on both sides of Oregon and California.
The state of Jefferson gained attention soon after as citizens barricaded Highway 99 in California entering Siskiyou County and handed out copies of the Proclamation of Independence to drivers crossing the “border”. Judge John Childs of Del Norte County was elected “governor” of Jefferson on December 4, 1941, and the news of the state’s secession was set to go to publication nationally. Unfortunately for the Jeffersonians, the planned date for the secession was December 8. The day before the secession, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the movement fizzled as efforts across the nation and in the region turned to the Second World War. The roads in the area were eventually improved after the war as part of the Interstate Highway system, but Jefferson remains its rural character and to some extent its state pride even today. Some buildings are adorned with the Jefferson label and there is still some talk of secession, though it is much more limited than in 1941. Still, it remains the closest any state secession proposal has come to fruition in recent times.