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The State of Jefferson: a resource struggle centuries in the making

By Willie Stein - Legal Ruralism, March 3, 2017

Nestled among rich forests and steep mountains, the State of Jefferson is a quasi-mythic political dream for many of its residents in Northern California and Southern Oregon. In 1941, residents of the Siskyou mountains, disgruntled at the State of California's persistent neglect of critical road and other infrastructure and its exploitation of the resources of the area, made a theatrical show of 'seceding' from the state. They set up roadblocks to demand documentation of those entering and exiting, and hoisted a flag bearing a distinct "XX" legend to signify their double crossing by the governments of Sacramento and Salem. Today, that XX flag can be seen across vast swaths of Northern California and Southern Oregon to signify a contempt for the remote governments that residents perceive to control resources that rightfully belong to them. Residents are vigorously anti-regulation, and see themselves as the victims of the repression of the state. Jeffersonians rightly perceive that they wield little political clout in California, paying in more than they get back. Are the Jeffersonians the only victims in California's North Country?

The answer to that might start by examining their choice of name- presumably chosen as a nod to the small government, state's rights' oriented Thomas Jefferson. Having lived and travelled in the State of Jefferson, I can't help but think of another resonance, one not intended by the secessionists: That of Thomas Jefferson as one of the initial architects of Indian Removal. The State of Jefferson is laid over a complex patchwork of pre-existing tribal nations that occupied the land. Although the Jeffersonians often claim to be "native Californians", indigenous tribes such as the Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, Wintu, and many others long predate the arrival of Europeans. I can't help but see the State of Jefferson as a continuation of a long history of erasure of indigenous political formations by those of white colonists.

The proponents of the State of Jefferson are the heirs to a tradition of aggressive resource extraction that began with the Gold Rush in the 1850s. After the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, men hoping to find their fortune poured into previously sparsely populated areas of Northern California. The results were disastrous for the tribal peoples of the area. Small conflicts between white prospectors and natives regularly degenerated into wholesale massacres. Across what is now the heart of Jefferson, native people were slaughtered by militias composed of gold-hungry prospectors and settlers. See, for example, the murder of 153 Wintu Indians by white settlers in the Bridge Gulch Massacre near Hayfork. Or the murder of between 80-250 Wiyot people by the residents of Eureka in 1860.

While wholesale slaughter of indigenous peoples has thankfully stopped, conflicts over the resources of the area between the native tribes and others have been a constant. In the 1970s and 80s, the US Forest Service began to construct a road between the hamlets of Gasquet and Orleans in the southern Siskyou mountains in order to facilitate logging access. The road was to pass through an area considered sacred to the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa. The Yurok tribe petitioned for an injunction against the construction of the road on the theory that its construction was a violation of their First Amendment rights to practice their religion there. The 9th Circuit ruled that completion of the road was a violation of the Free Exercise clause, but the judgment was reversed at the Supreme Court in 1988. Luckily for the tribes, the completion of the road was stopped as part of the designation of the Smith River Wild and Scenic National Recreation Area.

Such conflicts over resource extraction continue to the present day. The Karuk intervened in a case on the side of the state over a moratorium on suction dredge gold mining (explained succinctly in this Legal Ruralism blog post) in 2008. The Karuk, who are based in Happy Camp on the Klamath River, are against suction dredge gold mining because it may injure fish populations in the river. One note of interest about Happy Camp: it was briefly named "Murderer's Bar" in reference to either violence surrounding claim jumping or clashes with native peoples.

None of this is to say that the grievances of the State of Jefferson are simply illegitimate; because one population suffers it does not lessen the suffering of others. In fact, many of the social ills that affect the tribal people of the North Country, such as extremely high rates of suicide, also afflict the libertarian dreamers of the State of Jefferson. Although the State of Jefferson advocates posit unfettered and unregulated resource extraction as the way to generate the capital to escape such despair, it seems clear to me that such a move would only reinforce patterns of oppression of native peoples that have existed since the 1850s. These counties need a way forward-- I hope they will find one that can bring along everyone.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.