Annals of Northwest secession

A primer of regional separatist movements, real and imagined.
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A primer of regional separatist movements, real and imagined.

The history of the West is one of shifting borders and the clash of empires over possession of territory — remember, we almost went to war with Britain over a pig. Perhaps because so many of the region's state, and even national, boundaries are comparatively recent, they seem like they're up for grabs. Certainly, the past teaches us that, Lou Dobbs aside, few borders are permanent. Here is a short list of state and national secessionist scenarios involving the Great Nearby.


Type of entity: Independent nation.

Conceived by: Ernest Callenbach in his 1975 novel, Ecotopia. Comprised of: Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, including the San Francisco Bay Area.

Background: Callenbach imagined an isolated, eco-friendly country that seceded and cut itself off from the rest of the U.S. One of the first tracts to sketch out bioregionalism.

Pros: Sustainable yet-tech-friendly, with recycling, car-less cities and mag-lev rail developed by Boeing.

Cons: Communal living in Berkeley atmosphere, no baseball, football, or basketball, TV programming like 24/7 C-span.

Status: Continues to be a regional utopian roadmap (see Cascadia below). Author Joel Garreau included a modified version of Ecotopia (including the Pacific coast up to Alaska) as one of his "Nine Nations of North America."

Pacific Republic

Type of entity: Independent nation.

Conceived by: Thomas Jefferson.

Comprised of: Pacific coast of U.S., including California, Oregon, and Washington.

Background: When President Jefferson sent the Lewis & Clark expedition west, he imagined the Pacific coast would one day be settled by Americans and flourish as a "free and independent empire." American settlers briefly declared California independent of Mexico in 1846, the so-called "Bear Flag Republic," but shortly joined the cause of taking the region for the U.S. during the Mexican War. The Pacific Republic re-emerged in the 1850s as some Californians expressed unhappiness with sending gold to the federal treasury in the East but receiving few federal benefits in return. Southern sympathizers seized on it at the start of the Civil War in hopes of gaining an ally in secession and access to Pacific ports for the Confederacy.

Pros: The then-remote West Coast could control its own destiny without being exploited by the feds and corrupt political patronage.

Cons: Country might have become known for surfin' and slavery.

Status: The idea lives on in smaller Western secession movements, including California and Cascadia.

State of Lincoln

Type of entity: New U.S. state.

Comprised of: Washington east of the Cascade Mountains and the Idaho Panhandle, or all of Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon.

Background: The region is at the heart of the so-called Inland Empire. The Idaho Panhandle has long felt alienated from Boise, and Eastern Washington has chaffed under the increasing dominance of Western Washington. (The last governor from the dry side of the mountains was Clarence Martin in 1933.) First proposed in 1864 and at regular intervals and with slight variations, Lincoln lived as recently as 2005 when Eastern Washington lawmakers proposed splitting the state in two. Said pro-secessionist Republican state senator Bob Morton of Kettle Falls: "It's not sour grapes. It's common sense. People who think alike should be united."

Pros: Free of Boise and Olympia bureaucrats, rules and regulations, more control of natural resources.

Cons: No tax revenues flowing from wet, urban western side of mountains.

Status: Stalled.

State of Jefferson

Type of entity: New U.S. state.

Comprised of: Counties of southwestern Oregon and Northern California.

Background: Angry over the inability to get state funds for roads and bridges, in November, 1941, a group of angry citizens met in Yreka, CA to declare their intention to form a new state. Led by the mayor of Port Orford, Oregon, the general complaint of the rural, resource-rich region was "Our Roads Are Not Passable, Hardly Jackassable." Proposed state flag featured two x's, indicating the region was being double-crossed by state governments in Salem and Sacramento.

Pros: Would have broken California into more manageable bits.

Cons: The plan was shelved as silly and trivial after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Secession was put aside for the war effort.

Status: Today, advocates refer to it not as a movement, but "a state of mind."


Type of entity: Independent country or regional economic powerhouse.

Comprised of: Various Northwest states and provinces, including Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, but also ranging from Alaska, Alberta, and the Yukon to Idaho, Montana, and Northern California. Its borders are similar to those of the old Oregon Country and greater Cascadia, roughly following the Columbia River watershed.

Background: There are two different current Cascadia concepts. One is an attempt to put the ideas of Ecotopia into practice and is attempting to manage, protect, and restore the greater bioregion with an emphasis on sustainability and direct democracy. The second is based on economic cooperation and global competitiveness — a vision of regional cooperation on global trade, tourism, development, energy, and other issues. The Pacific Northwest Economic Region, established by the Cascadian states and provinces in the 1990s, says that if Cascadia were an independent nation, it would be the 8th richest in the world, with a GDP of $500 billion.

Pros: Regional cooperation.

Cons: A country divided between the Ecotopians and free market Thomas Friedman-style flat-earthers.

Status: Less a secession movement than a struggle for control of the region's economy and ecology.


Type of entity: Uber sub-region, perhaps even a state.

Comprised of: The sprawling counties of Washington's central Puget Sound, including King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap.

Background: Frustrations over growth and transportation have been endemic in this rapidly growing urban region since the late 19th century, when emerging cities competed for dominance. Today, struggles over local governance and Balkanized decision-making are growing as the region rapidly expands, and federal and state funds are less available to address infrastructure needs, voiced most recently when Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels told Seattle's City Club: "Our region should declare its independence."

Pros: More coherent regional planning.

Cons: Just another Seattle power grab.

Status: Mostly a temper tantrum.

Alaskan Independence

Type of entity: Independent nation or autonomous region.

Comprised of: Alaska.

Background: Some Alaskans regret ever becoming a state. Heavy federal control, a wealth of resources, isolation, and a history of independent action give energy to groups like the Alaska Independence Party, which advocates a range of options, from loosening the federal hold on the state, to a return to territorial status, to full independence. Many Alaskans are tried of the federal yoke — the U.S. government owns 60% of the land. They generally consider the 1959 statehood vote to be invalid.

Pros: Privatization of federal land, larger share of oil royalties.

Cons: A free-for-all for land rapers.

Status: Next year will be the 50th anniversary of statehood — a time for grumpy sourdoughs to demand a do-over.

For those interested in tracking secession movements more generally, check out the Middlebury Institute, which keeps a roster of North American separatist efforts. One of the leading lights there is the scholar and author Kirkpatrick Sale, who also happens to be the brother of University of Washington English professor and Seattle historian Roger Sale.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.