Men armed with hunting rifles barricaded the only paved road between California and Oregon on a rainy Thursday, giving inconvenienced motorists copies of a handbill that read:
State of Jefferson Proclamation of Independence
You are now entering Jefferson, the 49th State of the Union.
Jefferson is now in patriotic rebellion against the States of California and Oregon.
This State has seceded from California and Oregon this Thursday, November 27, 1941.
Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice.
For the next hundred miles as you drive along Highway 99, you are travelling parallel to the greatest copper belt in the far West, seventy-five miles west of here.
The United States government needs this vital mineral. But gross neglect by California and Oregon deprives us of necessary roads to bring out the copper ore.
If you don't believe this, drive down the Klamath River Highway and see for yourself. Take your chains, shovel and dynamite.
Until California and Oregon build a road into the copper country, Jefferson, as a defence-minded state, will be forced to rebel each Thursday and act as a separate State.
(Please carry this proclamation with you and pass them out on your way.)
State of Jefferson Citizens Committee
Temporary State Capitol1, Yreka
This act of disobedience drew the eyes of the world to the Jefferson State Rebellion. What drove these rebels to such extremes?
Setting the Stage for the Jefferson State Rebellion
Sometimes geography dictates history. The Oregon-California border lies along the forty-second parallel. Oregon's state capital, Salem, is 250 miles to the north; Oregon's biggest city, Portland, is near its northern border. California's state capital, Sacramento, is 280 miles south of the forty-second parallel, and California's major population centres are in the southern half of the state. The mountainous border area's distant location and sparse population meant state politicians usually could ignore the needs of the relatively few voters.
If the Oregon-California border counties were neglected, their citizens did not always suffer in silence. From time to time, they exercised their rights under Article IV, Section 3 of the United States Constitution:
New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
Of course, by requiring a region to gain the consent of any affected state legislatures, the Founding Fathers stacked the deck2 against a successful secession attempt. Nonetheless, both northern California and southern Oregon took full advantage of this constitutional provision, making rebellion something of a Pacific Northwestern tradition.
California joined the Union in 1850, but almost immediately revealed its own deep disunity. Within two years, a bill proposing to divide the state, north from south, was introduced in the 1852 session of the California State Legislature. The bill died in committee, but the underlying issues were never resolved, giving rise to half a dozen secession attempts over the years leading up the Jeffersonian State Rebellion.
Southern Oregon first attempted to carve itself away from the north five years before Oregon gained statehood. In 1854, citizens of Oregon Territory's southern region filed a petition to establish the Territory of Jackson. This secession attempt foundered without much notice, as did a handful of other such efforts between 1859 (when Oregon became a state) and the Jefferson State Rebellion.
Meanwhile, densely-populated northern Oregon and southern California counties reaped the benefits of public works projects denied their rural cousins. By the mid-1930s, paved roads supported commerce and industry, carrying vehicular traffic throughout those counties well endowed with voters. No such modern roads existed in the rural counties on either side of the Oregon-California border. Single-lane dirt roads twisting through rugged mountains were navigable by mule or donkey only in fair weather. During the rainy season, these dirt roads dissolved into mud or slid out completely, rendering communities as isolated as they had been one hundred years before.
The Rebellion North of the Border
Gilbert Gable, the mayor of Port Orford, Oregon, was in a most frustrating position. Port Orford stood to prosper if Curry County's vast natural resources could be developed. The demand for copper and chrome grew with each new report of the war in Europe. Gable spent months travelling across the country, imploring mining company owners to open operations in Curry, but to no avail. Without decent roads, no mining company could bring in modern equipment. Oregon state officials rejected appeals for funds to improve roads, while the United States was importing copper and chrome from South America.
Gable knew he needed to bring Curry County's predicament to a larger audience. He led a delegation from Port Orford to the County Courthouse in Gold Beach on 2 October, 1941. The delegation argued Curry should be permitted to secede from Oregon and join California, citing 'the persistent refusal of Oregon Officials...to recognize Curry County's rightful claim to development' and asserting California would not squander the opportunity to develop Curry's natural resources. 'Curry County would bring to California not only her vast and untouched stores of minerals but one-tenth of the Nation's standing timber and all of the Port Orford Cedar in the world.'
The Superior Court judge who heard these arguments appointed a three-man commission to review the secession proposal. News of Curry County's plan to secede from Oregon to California made regional and national news; even the New York Times carried the story. [4 October, 1941.] The 14 October Oakland Tribune quoted California Governor Olson's response: 'We are glad to know they think enough of California to want to join it'.
On 30 October, Governor Olsen hosted two delegations from Oregon, the Curry County secessionists, and the Oregon Cavemen, a service club from Grants Pass in Josephine County. Gable led the Curry County secessionists, presenting Olsen with a long list of complaints, denouncing Oregon state officials for their negligence, and pressing for Curry County to join California. The Oregon Cavemen protested the Curry County petition in an effective, if unusual, style. Dressed in animal skins and waving large bones, the Oregon Cavemen issued pronouncements such as, 'We dug a ditch to the coast through Curry County and don't propose giving it gracefully to California.'
Newspaper reporters focused on the Oregon Cavemen's antics which served to discredit the Curry County movement. A California legislator remarked, 'Northern border counties bartered only in bear claws and eagle beaks.' Perhaps Olsen sought to distance himself from the spectacle; he offered Gable and Curry County his sympathy but not his support. The governor admitted that Del Norte County3, California faced many of the same difficulties as did Curry County and suggested that representatives of the two counties meet.
Gable took Olsen's advice and set out for Del Norte County, with results the California governor could hardly have predicted.
The Rebellion South of the Border
Neither road conditions nor morale were much better in the northern California counties of Del Norte and Siskiyou.
Del Norte's Defection
Mayor Gable arrived at the 10 November Del Norte County Supervisor's meeting shortly after the Del Norte Triplicate published an open editorial wondering what California would do to develop the county's resources. At this meeting, Del Norte County, California allied itself with Curry County, Oregon. [Port Orford Post, 14 November, 1941.]
For several months, the Siskiyou Daily News editor had been agitating for the State to improve the Klamath River Highway, a treacherous, narrow dirt road, and the only link to the railroad at Yreka for local mining and timber operations.
When state politicians redirected Siskiyou's promised Klamath River Highway road improvement resources to Los Angeles County to pave a park, the editor fumed, 'Millions have been dumped into Los Angeles County until everything from cow tails to movie actresses' hearts have been concrete coated.' [Siskiyou Daily News, 6 November, 1941.]
Gable pitched his idea for a multi-county alliance to the Yreka Chamber of Commerce on 17 November. The Chamber of Commerce unanimously agreed. The next day's Siskiyou Daily News headlines announced a possible 49th state. [Siskiyou Daily News, 18 November, 1941.]
The Rest of the Rebels
In addition to the original three rebel counties of Curry, Del Norte, and Siskiyou, the rebellion included Modoc, Lassen, Trinity, but not all at the same time.
California's Modoc County initially joined the alliance, but one week later withdrew. The Modoc County town of Cedarville meanwhile announced its intention to join the State of Nevada. [San Francisco Chronicle, 29 November, 1941.]
Lassen County fell in with the rebelling counties in late November, but withdrew by early December, citing renewed faith in the California State government. [Siskiyou Daily News, 1 December, 1941.] At about the same time, Trinity County apparently lost the faith Lassen County found, because it joined the rebellion.
Loyalist Rural Counties
Not all rural counties joined the rebellion. Jackson and Josephine counties rejected Gable's invitation to the alliance. Klamath county also declined, suggesting if it were to secede, it would ally itself with Portugal.
Officially Humboldt County did not join what it referred to as a 'good publicity stunt'. [Humboldt Standard, 26 November, 1941.] Many Humboldt citizens supported the movement, however. One of them, Eureka resident JE Mundell, earned $2 by submitting the winning entry 'Jefferson', after Thomas Jefferson, in a contest4 to name the new state. [Siskiyou Daily News, 24 November, 1941.]
The new state had a name, Jefferson. It had a state capital, Yreka. Now it needed some policies.
Gable issued a press release announcing Jefferson State would be free of noxious taxes, specifically sales tax, income tax, and liquor tax. Slot machines were to be outlawed; no slot machine would be permitted to detract from Jefferson's stud poker industry.
News of this nature was bound to attract a big-city reporter. Stanton Delaplane of the San Francisco Chronicle arrived on 26 November, to cover the Jefferson State Rebellion.
Stanton Delaplane Reporting
Delaplane's articles described ruggedly beautiful country, tough miners, and the reasons behind the rebellion. The San Francisco Chronicle ran Delaplane's pieces as front page news for the first three days.
'Gun-toting citizens of these rebel counties are partly mad, partly in fun, partly in earnest about this new State,' and 'The State seal...will be a double cross on a mining pan to commemorate the 30 year whipping they took from the States of California and Oregon.' [San Francisco Chronicle, 27 November, 1941.]
'Rough-shirted miners with pistols buckled on their belts, barricaded the main highway north and south tonight, declared for "patriotic independence" for their 49th State, and defied Governor Olsen to collect the penny sales tax.' [San Francisco Chronicle, 28 November, 1941.]
'Like the copper belt of the Siskiyou, I am stranded between highways,' Delaplane reported from Happy Camp. 'All through the border counties they have minerals for defence and lumber for housing. But there are no roads to bring it out.' [San Francisco Chronicle, 29 November, 1941.]
The Jefferson rebels weren't alone in their concerns about defence. War news from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia pushed the next two of Delaplane's dispatches off the front page.
'...these Cinderella counties have no votes, and all they can do is make a noise. That noise is secession...' [San Francisco Chronicle, 30 November, 1941.]
'Miners from the back country are ready to put up hard cash and get the legal talent to petition Congress for the forty-ninth State of Jefferson.'[San Francisco Chronicle, 1 December, 1941.]
Delaplane's dispatches7 cleverly wove together the dollars-and-cents reasons behind the rebels' complaints, a travelogue of mudslides and mining camps, and human interest stories. San Francisco Chronicle readers couldn't get enough Jefferson stories, such as that of Dorothy Reddy Moroney, the Chrome Queen of Siskiyou, an independent mine owner who carted 600 tons of chrome ore out of the hills along 144 miles of dirt roads, one small wagon-load at a time.
With news like that, it was no wonder five newsreel companies, plus photographers from Time and Life magazines, arrived to cover Jefferson's Thursday secession activities on 4 December. It was a pity Mayor Gable didn't live to see it.
Gilbert Gable, whose tireless efforts to squeeze some road money out of Oregon gave birth to the Jefferson State movement, died of a heart attack on Tuesday, 2 December.
Flags flew at half mast over Jefferson's state capital, Yreka. The Siskiyou County Supervisors eulogised Gable as 'a true son of the frontier...and a man whose memory will always be revered in this part of the Nation.' [San Francisco Chronicle, 3 December, 1941.]
Gable may have been Jefferson's larger-than-life promoter, but he wasn't its only leader. OG Steele of Yreka and State Senator Randolph Collier promised to see the 'Gable Dream' through and made sure the newsreel companies had plenty to film that Thursday.
The Show Must Go On
The Siskiyou Daily News ran an invitation to all Jeffersonians to attend Thursday's secession activities dressed in western garb, as a not-so-subtle reminder that state government policies had consigned rural counties to the 1800s. [Siskiyou Daily News, 3 December, 1941.]
In addition to barricading Highway 99, 4 December's secession activities included a rally, the first Jefferson state gubernatorial election and inauguration, and torchlight parade.
Judge John Childs of Crescent City, Del Norte County won the election, besting two other candidates, Mayor Albert Herzog of Yreka, Siskiyou County and Edwin Regan, District Attorney from Weaverville, Trinity County. During his inaugural address, Governor Childs kissed a baby8, posed for photos with a bear cub9 and promised roads to the citizens of Jefferson.
Newsreel crews filmed parading Jeffersonians carrying signs with these road-related slogans:
- Our Roads Are Not Passable, Hardly Jackassable
- If Our Roads You Would Travel, Bring Your Own Gravel
- The Promised Land - Our Roads Are Paved With Promises
The Jefferson State Secession newsreels, designated for release on 8 December, 1941, were not the ones Americans saw.
Ending the Jefferson State Rebellion
Sometimes history dictates geography. Japan's crushing attack on Pearl Harbor swept aside bickering over state borders and roads.
Childs's last act as Jefferson's governor was to disband the tiny rebellion. On the same day President Franklin D Roosevelt signed the Declaration of War against Japan, Governor Childs made the following pronouncement:
'In view of the National Emergency, the acting officers of the provisional territory of Jefferson here and now discontinue any and all activities.
'The State of Jefferson was originated for the sole purpose of calling the attention of the proper authorities of Oregon and California, and the Federal authorities in Washington, to the fact we have immense deposits of strategic and necessary defence minerals and that we need roads to develop these.
We have accomplished that purpose and henceforth all our efforts will be directed toward assisting our States and Federal Governments in the defence of our country.' [San Francisco Chronicle, 9 December, 1941.]
Ironically, World War II defence spending included funds for some of the roads for which Jefferson State rebels had been clamouring.
The Jefferson State Regional Identity
By all rights, Jefferson State should have faded away, just another Pacific Northwest secession attempt. In northern California and southern Oregon, however, traces of Jefferson persist to this day.
Businesses and bands use the Jefferson State name. Southern Oregon University and Humboldt State University host the annual State of Jefferson Mathematics Congress. Small-town streets are named after Gable, Childs, and Steele. Tourists buy Jefferson State T-shirts and baseball caps; locals might listen to Jefferson Public Radio10. Motorists may tour the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway as it winds along the Klamath River between Yreka, California and O'Brien, Oregon. But Jefferson exists as something beyond a brand name or a vacation destination.
Locals sometimes identify the region as Jefferson, partly to distinguish it from distant cities, partly to identify the odds they face when seeking government attention. Jefferson persists because rural neglect still exists.
Just as in the 1940s, today's state politicians win elections by pleasing large populations of voters, such as those found in metropolitan areas far from the rural border counties' small towns.
Severe rural neglect can even inspire a State of Jefferson revival. Josephine County Commissioner Kenneth W Jackson led the 1971 State of Jefferson movement, saying conditions had not changed much since 1941 except there were fewer working jackasses. The 1971 Jefferson State rebellion involved twice as many counties11 as the original, and likewise fizzled in a month, after drawing attention to rural concerns. [San Francisco Examiner, 28 November, 1971; Oregon Journal, 6-7 December, 1971.]
Some locals think of themselves as Jeffersonians; they consider themselves a people apart from distant city-dwellers, their homeland ignored by remote governments, and an occasional rebellion efficacious.
'A little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.' - Thomas Jefferson