California is the third-largest state in the United States, with the Union’s largest population and economy. From the very beginning, it’s been a hard state to govern – and more than once, people have tried to fix California by cutting it into smaller states. There have been over 200 attempts to break up (or break away from) California; here are some the most important.
1. The Great Republic of Rough and Ready
No sooner had California been formed than people were already trying to get away from it. The 3,000 miners of Rough and Ready resented the new state of California for its heavy taxes and failure to maintain order. On April 7, 1850, they seceded from the state (and the Union). They revoked their secession in order to celebrate July 4 with a clear conscience (and to land a lucrative federal post office).
2. The State of Colorado
The antics of a few miners paled next to the growing crisis in America over slavery. Southern leaders hated the idea of a giant new free state. From 1850 to 1861, pro-slavery legislators introduced bills every year to divide the state. The state assembly passed one bill in 1854, to divide the state into the states of Colorado, California, and Shasta, but the state senate failed to pass it. The legislature and the governor passed a second attempt in 1859, which would have created a new state of Colorado out of southern California, but the arrival of the Civil War kept the proposal from reaching Congress.
3. From the Civil War to Jefferson
The Civil War made secession decidedly unfashionable, and the arrival of the railroads and the telegraph made it easier to govern such a large state. For decades, the tensions between California’s north and south and between the vast rural hinterlands and the big cities were tamped down. The last straw for the neglected northern counties was the Great Depression. In late 1941, Mayor Gilbert Gable of Port Orford, Oregon suggested that the northern counties of California should join the southern counties of Oregon in forming the new state of Jefferson. The proposal gained national attention when a group of armed hotheads blocked traffic on a national highway – but the attack on Pearl Harbor less than two weeks later ended the Jefferson movement.
The social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s created a new wave of idealist secessionists. In March 1964, a small group of Native American activists protested at the abandoned prison of Alcatraz Island near San Francisco. A larger group returned in November 1969; at its height, the occupying activists had a population of 400. Federal law enforcement removed the last 15 occupiers on June 11, 1971. Other idealists dreamt of carving part of California out for themselves; the writer Ernest Callenbach wanted northern California to join the new nation of Ecotopia, an idea that spawned the Cascadia secession movement of the 21st century. A few Hispanic activists began calling for the integration of southern California into a new Spanish-speaking nation of Aztlán. And offshore, libertarians wanted to go even farther and create their own havens; the late 1960s saw failed attempts to create the platform nations of Taluga and Abalonia (the wreckage of which is now an attractive artificial reef).
5. The Return of Regionalism
While radicals of various stripes pursued their dreams, many legislators took up the idea of dividing the state in the 1960s for more practical reasons. Cultural differences between the cities and rural areas were aggravated by disputes over water management and annoyance over duplicated state offices in the north and south. A bill to divide north and south California passed the state Senate in 1966. Another proposal to split the state into thirds passed the state House of Representatives in 1993. Since then, the idea has percolated widely, and several northern counties have voted to resurrect the Jefferson project, but no serious proposal has come close to approval.
Today: The Six Californias Movement
Tim Draper, a billionaire best known for his investments in Hotmail and Skype, became the latest backer of a plan to split up California when he announced his Six Californias initiative in December 2013. Draper asserts that the state’s prison problem, high taxation, and educational outcomes show California is ungovernable in its current form. Opponents of the plan argue the state’s division would create administrative chaos and bitter disputes over taxes, water rights, and many other issues. Whatever a person’s position, they’ll have a chance to vote on it: thanks to a petition with 800,000 signatures, the Six Californias Initiative will go before California voters on the November 2016 ballot.