Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"The State of Jefferson": A Disaffected Region's 160-Year Search for Identity

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"The State of Jefferson": A Disaffected Region's 160-Year Search for Identity

Article excerpt

IF ONE WERE TO ASK RESIDENTS of Portland and the Willamette Valley, "Where and what is the State of Jefferson?," many would shrug in puzzlement. (1) A few might be somewhat familiar with the broader reasons behind the events that culminated in late 1941 with a well-publicized State of Jefferson secession movement. Some residents of southwestern Oregon and northern-most California held (and some still hold) the belief that their regions had far more in common with each other than they do with the other parts of their respective states--and, that neither of them has gotten a fair shake from Salem or Sacramento, distant state capitals ever-dominated by the interests of far-more-heavily populated parts. Thus, the birth of the State of Jefferson idea, the sentiments of which can be summarized as: Let us depart from California and from Oregon; we shall throw in our lot together, make common cause, and decide our own destiny as a single, new state.

This secession idea--a symptom of geographic distance and political disaffection from more populated areas of the two states--has waxed and waned under various names over the course of 160 years. The twentieth-century episodes in this lengthy story were actually far less serious in their intent to separate from Oregon and California than many residents of the area now seem to believe. Still, the historical meaning of the State of Jefferson idea is more complex and, ultimately, more interesting than the present-day, somewhat romanticized versions of the 1941 episode in particular. This essay attempts to answer two questions: What are the historical facts of the State of Jefferson idea, and what is the larger contextual meaning of this 160-year search for regional identity? Relatively few historical studies of the State of Jefferson--studies both of the actual events of the 160-year-old Jefferson story and of the changing motivations behind the secession idea--have been published. In addition to focusing on the two questions posed above, this essay also intends to encourage further inquiry into the broader State of Jefferson phenomenon. (2)

In brief, this re-occurring State of Jefferson movement--a century and a half of intermittent proposals for separation and secession--reflects three very distinctive phases in southwestern Oregon and adjacent California, each of them with three very differing reasons for such talk. The first phase occurred during the 1850s, while the Oregon-California borderland region was still in its infancy. This phase took place while it was first being resettled by gold miners and farmers--people who were, among other things, determined to subdue and remove the Native people. This initial period was dominated by a genuine search for political identity. The second phase lasted from shortly after 1900 (a period of major influx of population and wealth) through the 1950s. Most definitely it was dominated by the search for political attention. This phase of search entailed attempts to parlay a publicity gimmick--the bogus threat of secession--into heightened political attention in Salem and Sacramento. The third Jeffersonian phase, yet another time of search, began during the mid 1970s, and it continues into today. The current phase has indeed seen attempts by a few people to find a truly political identity as a new state. Nevertheless, this phase has largely transformed into a search for a satisfying regional, even geographic and psychological, identity--an identity without the necessity of having formal governmental boundaries on the map. It began when another great influx of newcomers arrived in the region. Because the definition of the region's identity is still contested--it can mean very different things to different people--this current search may represent the most interesting phase of all.

THE FIRST PHASE was the search for political identity. It began in 1852 with a serious proposal for a new State of Shasta. This entity would have included most of California north of Sacramento and San Francisco Bay. …

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