5 Strange Secessions in American History

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Many movie fans are eager to see the upcoming Matthew McConaughey movie Free State of Jones, which opens June 24. Historians will definitely quibble with some facts in the film, but it does portray a real event, in which farmers, slaves and Confederate deserters banded together in Jones County, Miss., to secede from the Confederacy. The film is sure to spark interest in similar events that have been mostly forgotten. Here’s a look at that famous Jones County rebellion and a few other strange but true secession events in American history.

 

5. State of Jefferson

Armed men set up roadblocks near Yreka, Calif., in 1941 to proclaim the State of Jefferson. Credit: Schneider Museum of Art

Armed men set up a roadblock near Yreka, Calif., in 1941 to proclaim the State of Jefferson. Credit: Schneider Museum of Art

Many residents in rural Northern California are conservative, putting them at odds with the state government, which is dominated by more liberal, urban interests. There is a movement to create an independent state, and protestors have rallied at the state capitol on several occasions to raise awareness of the issue. As of early 2016, government officials or citizen petitions in 21 Northern California counties had declared an intention to form an independent state. Organizers say if California ignores their request for secession, they will sue.

This is not a new idea. The concept first arose just before World War II, fueled by citizens who felt ignored by the state government. They were especially angry about poor road conditions in the area. On Nov. 27, 1941, men armed with hunting rifles set up roadblocks on U.S. 99 near Yreka, Calif., to declare the State of Jefferson. Yreka was named as the capitol of the new state, which was comprised of four counties in Northern California and four adjacent counties in Southern Oregon. The rebels even inaugurated a governor. Handing out copies of a “Proclamation of Independence,” the citizens vowed to secede from the union “every Thursday until further notice.” Not surprisingly, the stunt earned attention in the national media. But the movement immediately faded a couple of weeks later following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet that failed effort inspired the modern secession movement. Those 1941 protestors adopted the symbol “XX,” for residents who had been “double-crossed.” Today, that XX is visible on flags, banners, bumper stickers and T-shirts throughout the region.

 

4. Free and Independent State of Scott

This historic marker is all that remains of the Free and Independent State of Scott.

This historic marker is all that remains of the Free and Independent State of Scott.

One misconception about the Civil War is that Southerners were united as one against the Union and wanted to secede. In truth, many regions were staunchly opposed to secession, but were outnumbered in the state government. In Scott County, Tenn., residents took matters into their own hands when their state joined the Confederacy. The county court issued a resolution in June 1861 declaring the “Free and Independent State of Scott.” For all intents and purposes, the secession failed. Tennessee didn’t recognize the proclamation; neither did the Union. The secession was soon lost to history, until 1986, when county officials voted to rescind the resolution and rejoin the state of Tennessee. The state welcomed Scott County back into the fold.

 

3. Kingdom of Beaver Island

James Strang, who proclaimed himself king of a Mormon island in Michigan in the 1850s.

James Strang, who proclaimed himself king of a Mormon island in Michigan in the 1850s.

Located in Lake Michigan midway between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, Beaver Island is today a scenic vacation destination. In the years before the Civil War, it had a very different status — as an independent Mormon kingdom. In 1848, a Mormon leader, James Strang, moved to the island with his followers. The so-called Strangites soon gained control of local government, and frequently clashed with other residents. Strang proclaimed himself king of his church, and even had a crown and robe. While non-church members were technically not subject to Strang’s rule, lines quickly became blurred; King Strang seized the property of outsiders, and even assaulted them. In time, he demanded all residents of the island live by his laws.

Here’s where the story takes a strange twist. The U.S. government indicted Strang and his followers on various charges. But Strang, who had legal training, defended himself in court and won. He returned to the island more powerful than ever. Yet Strang had made many enemies on the island. In June 1856, two men who had previously been flogged by Strang shot him in the back and then pistol-whipped him. He died three weeks later. The two men were fined a small amount for their role in the assassination, then released and treated as heroes. With the king out of the way, the island’s original residents seized the Mormons’ property and drove them from the island.

 

2. State of Westmoreland

The rough boundaries of the State of Westmoreland, an independent state carved out Pennsylvania in 1784.

The rough boundaries of the State of Westmoreland, an independent state proposed to be carved out of Pennsylvania in 1784.

Even before America officially existed as a republic, secession efforts arose. The first such incident traced its roots to the 17th century. The colonies of both Pennsylvania and Connecticut had long claimed ownership of the Wyoming Valley (the area that now includes Scranton and Wilkes-Barre). Both states sent settlers there to live, creating conflict. The issue came to a head between 1769 and 1784, with settlers from the two states facing off in conflicts known as the Pennamite-Yankee Wars. The two states asked the U.S. Confederation Congress to decide the ownership issue. When Congress determined the land belonged to Pennsylvania, the state declared that all Connecticut settlers must vacate their land claims and leave the area.

To enforce that edict, armed militiamen marched the Connecticut settlers out of the valley in 1784. The angry settlers returned six months later with a heavy military presence and destroyed a Pennsylvania military fort in the valley. With that, the leader of the group, Capt. John Franklin, proposed an independent state known as Westmoreland. Fearful of more potential fighting, and unwilling to recognize the new state, Pennsylvania agreed to honor the earlier land claims of those Connecticut settlers, bringing them into the Keystone State.

 

1. Free State of Jones

Matthew McConaughey stars in the 2016 action/drama Free State of Jones. © Murray Close/2015 STX Productions LLC.

Matthew McConaughey stars in the 2016 action/drama Free State of Jones. © Murray Close/2015 STX Productions LLC.

Historians disagree on whether or not Jones County, Miss., actually seceded from the Confederacy, but there was definitely an armed uprising. Most Jones County residents were struggling farmers, not wealthy, slave-holding plantation owners, so the county strongly opposed the state’s decision to secede from the Union in 1861. As the war dragged on, Jones and surrounding counties began to shelter Confederate deserters. These deserters and local residents began resisting efforts by Confederate tax collectors. In October 1863, a group of local men banded together to form the Knight Company, which allegedly fought more than a dozen skirmishes with Confederate forces before the war ended.

In 1864, the group raised the American flag over the Jones County courthouse, proclaiming their freedom from the Confederacy. They even wrote a letter to Union Gen. William Sherman declaring their independence. The group’s leader, Newton Knight — portrayed by Matthew McConaughey in the aforementioned film Free State of Jones — always maintained there had been no secession, as they did not support Jones County’s decision to secede from the Union. Knight remains a controversial figure in history, regarded by some as a freedom fighter, and by others as an ignorant outlaw out for personal gain. Either way, the events make for a great story. The saga of the Free State of Jones has inspired several books and a 1948 movie (Tap Roots) in addition to the new film.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock ‘n’ roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He’s traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.