50@50 State of Jefferson
Have you been to the state of Jefferson? Have you even heard of Jefferson? Its topography spans a rugged shoreline, mountain highlands, and high desert. Some of the tallest and oldest trees on continent hug its coast, wild and scenic rivers – important watersheds – pump through its heart, and cattle ranches and hay farms surround its capital, Yreka. A barn outside of town boldly confirms you’re in the State of Jefferson, just in case you weren’t sure. Never approved by congress, several counties in southern Oregon and northern California have attempted multiple times to secede and form their own state. In the 1840s, manifest destiny, an opening through the Rockies, and the discovery of gold spurred over 250,000 people to leave everything behind and migrate into California and Oregon, helping to create the towns of Yreka, Jacksonville and Ashland.
A couple of separatist movement rose and died in the 19th century, but the more infamous secession of the state of Jefferson originated in Port Orford Oregon in the fall of 1941. Mining and timber were making some communities rich, but in Curry County, the landscape’s rugged mountains, and inadequate roads barred accessibility to embarrassingly rich natural resources. Gilbert Gable, the mayor of Port Orford met with northern California leaders to secede from Oregon and join with three California counties to form the state of Jefferson since they all believed Salem and Sacramento ignored their regional needs and concerns. In November 1941, representatives met in Yreka California creating of a provisional government with Judge John L. Childs from Crescent City elected governor. They developed the featuring a double X (indicating they were double crossed by their state governments) emblazoned on a golden pan.
With much fanfare, they declared independence in Yreka at the end of November with Childs inaugurated on December 4th. Hollywood news services, Life and Time magazines and more all came to report the story. National press headlines, Jefferson 49th State were planned for December 8th. Stanton Delaplane from the San Francisco Chronicle, relentlessly slogged down muddy roads to follow the events and speak with locals. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for his coverage of the Jefferson statehood effort. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, Jeffersonians put their movement aside to support the war effort. Ironically, the government’s need for minerals found in the hills of Jefferson got the Curry County roads built quickly.
The story of Jefferson’s history, people and landscape has garnered a surprising amount of press over the past few years. In 2006, Jason Heald of Roseburg premiered a musical “The State of Jefferson” chronicling “ordinary citizens that defy state authorities and challenge political giants of the day to bring economic justice to their region”. The popular show ”How the States Got Their Shape” ran a segment in 2012 about getting lost in the state of Jefferson. People in nearly twenty counties in southern Oregon and northern California now live in the elusive state of Jefferson. The Klamath and Rogue River basins tie the ecosystems of both states together, and they share both ideology and cultural identity.
I began my hikes at the place it all began, Port Orford. Off the tourist trail, the tranquil fishing community boasts an active arts community. With spectacular scenery, the town is also noted for Battle Rock – a coastal outcropping on which the Qua-to-mah Native Americans fought Capt. William Tichenor and his men in 1851, a year after Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Act allowing white settlers to file claims on Indian land in Western Oregon without negotiated Indian treaty agreements.
I meandered along the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway: 108 beautiful miles through the heart of Jefferson. Beginning near Yreka, highway 96 in California meanders along the Klamath River. Situated in a unique transitional zone between the Cascades to its north and the Great Basin to the southeast, its watershed covers over 15,000 square miles. Hiking into Jefferson is easy from Seiad Valley where the Pacific Crest Trail intersects the Highway 96. The town of Happy Camp is the gateway to the Marble Mountains and the regional ancestral home of the Karuk Tribe, who still live throughout the vicinity today. In town, trails lead into the wilderness area. Turning off 96, Grayback Road climbs northwest up to Grayback Mountain and descends to complete its journey into O’Brien Oregon.
If the heart of Jefferson is Port Orford, then for Oregonians, the Rogue River is its backbone. The 1850s brought miners and farmers along the bounteous Rogue. Mining depleted the river’s salmon, and the farmers’ livestock and plows devastated the indigenous tribes’ food sources. Attacks and counter attacks escalated until all-out war erupted in 1855. In 1856, US troops marched the final resistors northward to reservations, but untold numbers vanished into the mountain forests.
President Johnson signed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, protecting eight of the most important river in the country including the Rogue. The 40 mile Wild and Scenic section limits the numbers of users allowed daily in order to protect the environment. I hiked and rafted those 40 miles creating the themes of the river-inspired horn trio along the way. Stream bridges marked our progress, as lizards scurried by, bald eagles fishing and river otters played. Writer Zane Grey built a cabin at Wrinkle Bar, dilapidated but still standing, writing Rogue River Feud and a plethora of articles about life along the river.
For some, the State of Jefferson is a tangible place a bit apart from the rest of Oregon and California. For others, it’s a state of mind. Regardless, the people of “Jefferson” counties share an incredible ecosystem and an independent spirit. The story is dramatic – the landscape and the culture of Jefferson’s people even more so.
 Eight counties including Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties are often listed as original Jefferson counties, but their inclusion does not appear firm in November 1941
 Heald, Jason, http://www.jasonheald.com/9.html
 Laufer, Peter. The Elusive State of Jefferson, 2013, http://www.amazon.com/The-Elusive-State-Jefferson-Personal/dp/0762788364
 Whole articles have been dedicated to the complex history, current and future states of the basin. Water access and rights remain contentious. The borderless-state approach may be a model for collaboration the future.