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Adventures in Statehood

Fifty states is a lot, but we've almost had several others. Here are a few states that could have been, but never were.
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Locals in southern Oregon and northern California have tossed around ideas for the State of Jefferson since at least 1854, when a "Mass Meeting" was held to discuss the formation of a territory separate from California or Oregon. Nearly a century later, in 1941, the mayor of the small coastal town of Port Orford, Oregon, along with a California judge and a state senator, pushed for self-determination after ranchers and other locals took over a highway near the border between the states. With an appointed "governor," a state flower ("anything but a pansy!"), and hundreds of citizens marching in the streets of the proposed state capital, Jefferson began to seem like a real possibility. However, Pearl Harbor diverted the nation's attention and put an end to all that. Nevertheless, during the 2016 occupation of federal land in Oregon, a member of the Bundy militia wore a Jefferson beanie in a YouTube dispatch from inside the compound.

The Free and Independent State of Scott

Like most counties in eastern Tennessee—where slavery was relatively economically unimportant—Scott County voted overwhelmingly against leaving the Union in 1861. When Tennessee joined the Confederacy anyway, Scott County doubled down and voted to secede from Tennessee and become its own state. Fittingly, the county had been named for General Winfield Scott, who was still leading the Union army at the start of the Civil War but retired soon after. Although its independence was never recognized by the state, Scott County didn't formally rejoin Tennessee until 1986, when the county petitioned the state for re-admission.

National Movement for the Establishment of a 49th State

At the height of Jim Crow, Chicago civil rights activist Oscar C. Brown began a movement advocating for the creation of a 49th state for black Americans. In a 1935 essay for The Crisis, Brown wrote: "The Negro in the United States is already in a '49th State,' or certainly in a state different from that in which other American citizens live." Despite robust support for black separatism in communist circles at the time, the movement never garnered enough funding to gain traction outside of Chicago, and it eventually fizzled out.


In 1939, the old boys of the Sheridan Rotary Club rallied around A.R. Swickard, a former professional baseball player, with a plan to stand up for the grassland ranches of the northern Wyoming and western South Dakota region by declaring for themselves a new state (to which southern Montana was later added). Already smarting from the Dust Bowl and the perceived indifference from state legislatures, the area was newly disaffected by its minuscule cut of New Deal aid. With a troll's winking sincerity, Swickard proclaimed himself governor and oversaw a Miss Absaroka beauty contest. Novelty license plates were created, and, after the King of Norway toured through the area, dubious claims were made of official recognition. Today, the namesake Absaroka State Takeover, a rockabilly car show complete with pin-up girls and hot rods, occurs annually in Sheridan.

Washington, D.C.

With license plates that read "End Taxation Without Representation," Washington, D.C., is not quiet about the fact that it is the only part of the continental U.S. without full congressional representation. Until 1961, D.C. residents had no say in presidential elections, and the District was only allowed to begin electing its mayor in 1974. The city overwhelmingly voted in favor of statehood in both 1980 and 2016, but Republicans have never completely warmed to the idea—partly because D.C. is so blue, but, distressingly, maybe also because it's so black. In an 1890 congressional session, Alabama Senator John Morgan praised the denial "of suffrage entirely to every human being in the District ... in order thereby to get rid of this load of Negro suffrage that was flooded in upon them." Were it a state, D.C. would be the blackest, beating Mississippi by about 10 percent.

A version of this story originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Pacific Standard as a sidebar to "In Search of a More Perfect Union." Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.