California's northernmost counties have been pushing to form their own state for decades.
The State of Jefferson Double-X flag symbolizes the California's supposed "double cross" of its northern counties. MP Sharwood / Wikimedia Commons C.C. Share-Alike 4.0 License
One dark, rainy night in the hills of southern Oregon, San Francisco Chronicle travel columnist Stanton Delaplane sat down with the alcoholic mayor of Port Orford, Gilbert Gable, for an all-night drinking and brainstorming session at Gable’s redwood cabin. The date was Dec. 2, 1941. Delaplane would later stake his place in history as the man who introduced Americans to that special blend of booze and caffeine known as Irish Coffee. On that night, however, the subject was the State of Jefferson.
The backstory is that, a few weeks earlier, Gable went to Oregon governor Charles Martin to demand support for his idea to construct a new railroad that would connect Port Orford to the Southern Pacific line. The project would have been a considerable undertaking and Martin wanted no part of it. Infuriated by the rejection, Gable cooked up a new idea.
If he didn’t get his way, Port Orford and the rest of Curry County would secede from Oregon. In fact, the county would join up with several neighboring California counties and form an entirely new state.
The name of that state is believed to be a tribute to the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson—though according to journalist James Pogue it may also be “a winking homage to Jefferson Davis,” president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. In its original conception, in 1941, Jefferson would have become the 49th state.
A Reporter, a Mayor, and a Bottle of Rum
The Chronicle dispatched Delaplane to head north and send back a series of columns on the topic of the prospective new state, which Delaplane did—in his usual fanciful style. His drinking session with Gable, during which they are said to have polished off an entire bottle of 150-proof rum, was not actually part of his reporting on the story. It was more like part of a PR campaign.
In reality, Delaplane and Gable were making it up. Well, not making it up from whole cloth. More like, they were pumping it up. They saw their jobs not as telling the Jefferson story, but selling it.
Gable was a former public relations man who had never lost the huckster’s edge. Delaplane had been with the Chronicle for just five years, though he was already a popular and bankable writer who would later become a San Francisco icon of sorts, his column running in the Chronicle until literally the day he died at age 80—April 18, 1988.
In an interview 37 years after his State of Jefferson stories appeared, Delaplane told a historian that he saw his role in the secession story as “a press agent kind of thing.”
“A simple, barefoot press agent got himself elected mayor of Port Orford,” Delaplane recalled of Gable. “He was press-agenting it and I was press-agenting it.”
Then something extraordinary happened. The morning after their rum bacchanalia, Gable dropped dead. He was 55. An obituary in a local newspaper attributed the cause to “an attack of acute indigestion.” Delaplane later said it was a heart attack. Whether Gable’s death was attributable to his prodigious alcohol intake the night before remains a matter of speculation.
The Chronicle reporter also told his interviewer in 1978 that he believed Gable’s sudden demise was the final factor that won him a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Jefferson secession movement.
“It made for a very dramatic ending to a seven-day series,” he said. “And I think that is what impressed the Pulitzer Prize committee.”
Jefferson’s Founder Dies, But Jefferson Lives On
The name “Jefferson” came from a contest run by a newspaper in Siskiyou County. The Chamber of Commerce in Yreka had chosen the name “Mittelwestcoastia”—quite the mouthful. Contest entries included such names as “Bonanza,’ “New Hope,” “Discontent,” and “Del Curiskiyou.” A reader named J.E. Mundell, who local reports called an ideal winner because he had lived on both the Oregon and California sides of the state line, took home the $2 grand prize for his winning entry.
Residents of the prospective Jefferson counties felt that their state governments unfairly neglected them, particularly when it came to building necessary roads and other infrastructure. They were undeterred by the sudden passing of their leader.
The nascent state’s elected representatives declared Jefferson’s independence at an event at the Siskiyou County courthouse in November of 1941. Yreka was designated as the state capital, and John L. Childs, a 78-year-old judge from Del Norte County in California, was quickly elected “governor” by popular acclamation. Described in a 1952 California Historical Society Quarterly account as “a short weedy man of simple dignity,” Childs was inaugurated in a ceremony at the courthouse following a torchlight parade through the streets of Yreka.
In the spirit of Gable and Delaplane’s Barnumesque approach to the proposed new state, the town spared nothing when it came to showmanship. The event drew newsreel cameras from across the country. Reporters and photographers from Time and Life Magazines—two of the most influential news outlets of that era—had already spent three days in the area assembling sympathetic stories on the secessionists.
An Inauguration Day Extravaganza
For inauguration day, Yreka’s Daily News urged people to show up in “western” outfits and exhorted them to bring their children to the extravaganza. “Two hundred people in western costumes will be selected to march past the camera for close-ups,” the paper promised. A loudspeaker announcement commanded the crowd to “throw your hats in the air” when the governor was introduced and, according to the Historical Society Quarterly account, from the platform “the first white child born in the State of Jefferson” was introduced.
For his inauguration, “Governor” Childs delivered a brief but fiery “harangue” against the state and federal governments, for some reason singling out the government of Los Angeles County—more than 700 miles to the south—for especially disdainful reproach.
The Jeffersonians created their own state seal, one which can still be seen on flags flown in the region today. The seal consisted of a pan, of the kind used to pan for gold—in tribute to the region’s history as gold rush territory—and a double letter “X,” to symbolize the “double cross” that the county residents felt they had suffered at the hands of California state government.
A group of Yreka residents, in a canny publicity stunt cooked up by Delaplane and Gable, went on horseback to the place on Highway 99 that formed the boundary of their new, albeit imaginary, state, draping sheets printed with “State of Jefferson” over road signs and forming roadblocks where they would stop cars and hand the drivers copies of the Jefferson Declaration of Independence.
More newsreel cameras showed up to film the “roadblocks,” which were carefully scripted by Delaplane and staged for the cameras with newsreel reporters also chipping in to choreograph the action. But then something rather momentous happened—the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Swamped by the overwhelming drive for national unity as America made its entry into World War II, Childs and the Jefferson citizens committee put their longshot campaign for statehood on hold.
The State of Jefferson Today
Whether the 1941 push for the new “state” to secede from California and Oregon was ever taken seriously even by its most prominent advocates remains in doubt. Given who initiated it, the whole exercise can easily be seen as political theater, aimed at forcing the governments of two states to pay more attention, and devote more resources to the sparsely populated rural counties. But the concept of “Jefferson” never died, remaining as a dream or at least a unifying vision for the rural region. In 2013, however, the push to secede from California either by forming the 51st state, or by merging with Idaho, was resurrected by a rancher and former Siskiyou County Sheriff’s deputy named Mark Baird.
Baird drafted a declaration announcing the new “state,” and within a week the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors approved it by a 4-1 vote. Modoc County quickly followed suit and at least eight other counties formed committees to push the secession plan.
The rationale was similar to the one that drove Gable 72 years earlier. Baird and other State of Jefferson supporters felt that the rural counties were neglected and even treated with contempt by the state government. Unlike their predecessors who staged their secession push in an attempt to bring more state government resources and action to the rural regions, Baird’s new Jeffersonians wanted the state government out of their lives completely. Statehood, they believed, would allow them to govern themselves, and to be better represented at the federal level.
But perhaps more importantly, there is a cultural gap between the far north and the rest of the state, as Jeffersonians see it.
'We Need Trump'
“Mountainous and woodsy (as opposed to beachy, aggie, foggy, desert-y or glitzy), the region makes up more than a fifth of the state’s land mass but only three percent of its population,” noted a New York Times report on the State of Jefferson movement. “It is also generally whiter, older and poorer than the rest of the state.”
Baird condemns the state of California as “a totalitarian nightmare of social engineering,” and acknowledged that he and many Jeffersonians voted for Trump because of their hatred of his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton.
Most of the rural northern counties, including Siskiyou and Shasta, voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2020 presidential election, though Democrat Joe Biden won the state in a landslide with 64 percent of the vote. As recently as 2022, the website for New California, another group that wants counties in the Jefferson region to secede from California, promoted a letter-writing campaign to alert then-president Trump to their cause. “WE NEED TRUMP TO MAKE NEW CALIFORNIA STATE GREAT,” read a banner on the site, according to a report by the Sacramento Bee.
Jeffersonians may have come to the realization, however, that forming a new state is simply too cumbersome. Baird says that he now endorses the “Greater Idaho Movement,” in which California's northern counties and some rural Oregon counties, rather than creating a whole new state, would secede from California and merge with Idaho. Baird told the Willamette Week newspaper that joining Idaho appears to be “the shortest route” to breaking off from California.
Under Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, new states cannot form from the territory of existing states without approval from any state legislature involved—and from the U.S. Congress as well. The same applies to changing the boundaries of a state, such as Idaho. In fact, the Idaho merger would be even more complex than secession because all three legislatures in California, Oregon and Idaho would have to approve the change before it even goes before Congress.
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