HISTORY Lists

5 Would-Be U.S. States

By Evan Andrews
Today’s 50 U.S. states weren’t the only contenders for admission to the Union. In fact, a number of upstart territories—often with recognized flags, leaders and systems of government—just missed out on statehood at various points in the nation’s history. Find out more about these would-be states that failed to get their star on the American flag.
John Sevier

John Sevier, governor of the would-be state of Franklin.

1. Franklin

The State of Franklin—or “Frankland,” as it was first called—was created shortly after the Revolutionary War in what is now eastern Tennessee. At the time, the wild and mountainous region was part of western North Carolina and home to over 5,000 settlers. Tensions first rose in 1784 when the North Carolina state legislature withdrew militias from the region and unsuccessfully tried to cede the lands to the federal government. Under constant threat of Native American attacks and feeling abandoned by their government, the frustrated western settlers declared their counties a new American state. They appointed the swashbuckling John Sevier, a politician and soldier who’d gained fame fighting the Cherokee Indians, as their governor. In a meager attempt to gain Benjamin Franklin’s support for the cause, the aspiring state claimed to be named after the founding father. Franklin responded with a polite letter to Sevier but offered no public backing.

After petitioning Congress for admission to the newly formed United States, Franklin narrowly fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for statehood. Yet the rogue territory continued to exist as an independent republic with its own courts, legislature, taxes and constitution. In 1788 Sevier made an audacious bid for aid from the Spanish and was quickly arrested on charges of treason. Franklin soon collapsed and was reclaimed by North Carolina. Its lands were later ceded to help form the Southwest Territory, which became the state of Tennessee. Sevier escaped serious punishment for his actions and, thanks in part to his legendary reputation as the leader of Franklin, went on to become Tennessee’s first governor.

Deseret

Map of the proposed state of Deseret. (Utah State Historical Society)

2. Deseret

Deseret was a western state proposed by Mormon settlers in 1849. With borders that included parts of modern-day California, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming and Idaho, it stood to become the largest state in the Union. But if the sheer size of Deseret wasn’t enough to derail its path to statehood, the controversial Mormon practice of polygamy certainly was. Opposition was strong, and anti-polygamy activists portrayed Deseret as a move to create a Mormon theocracy within the United States. President Zachary Taylor attempted to combine Deseret and the newly formed state of California, but the plan collapsed when Deseret’s delegate failed to arrive at the state constitutional congress on time due to a misunderstanding. The final blow to Deseret’s statehood chances came in 1850 when a compromise led to the creation of the Utah Territory, with Mormon leader Brigham Young as its first governor.

Although the campaign to establish a super-state faded, for years a group of Mormon elders secretly met after each Utah Territory General Assembly and ratified new laws under the name “Deseret.” It was only with the arrival of the railroad—and with it many non-Mormon settlers—that the dream of the sprawling state was officially abandoned.

Sequoyah

Map of the proposed state of Sequoyah.

3. Sequoyah

The plan to form the state of Sequoyah began in the early 1900s during a meeting of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole Native American nations. At the time, the eastern part of what would later become Oklahoma encompassed the Indian Territory, a region populated by some 60,000 indigenous people. In 1905 the nations held a convention in Muskogee, where they drafted a proposal to turn the Oklahoma and Indian Territories into two individual states. Their new state, dubbed Sequoyah after the creator of the Cherokee writing system, had a proposed 48 counties and represented an attempt to maintain some degree of Native American self-governance over the Indian Territory.

The proposed constitution was expansive and included many progressive ideas, including anti-trust laws and restrictions on child labor. Still, it ultimately failed in the U.S. Congress, which balked at adding two new western states. Instead, the Indian Territory was incorporated into the new state of Oklahoma in 1907. Nevertheless, many of Sequoyah’s principles lived on. Several states directly copied its constitution’s novel ethics laws, and the Cherokee Nation continues to call its yearly conference on Native American issues the State of Sequoyah.

Absaroka

Map of the proposed state of Absaroka.

4. Absaroka

Often called the “state that never was,” Absaroka grew out of the political discontent of the Great Depression. The statehood movement first began in 1939 in Sheridan, Wyoming. Frustrated with the U.S. government—and in particular the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt—a group of politicians and businessmen led by a former baseball player named A.R. Swickard hatched a plan to create a new state they called Absaroka. The would-be state included large swaths of Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota, and encompassed famous landmarks such as the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. Swickard soon appointed himself governor and began hearing grievances from the “citizens” of his state. To garner support, he distributed Absaroka license plates and photos of the first (and last) Miss Absaroka.

Despite its initial popularity, the statehood movement’s novelty quickly wore off, and an official proposal for secession was never drafted. The story survives today largely thanks to the Federal Writers’ Project—ironically, one of FDR’s New Deal programs—which chronicled the Absaroka phenomenon while compiling travel guides to the American West.

Jefferson

Flag of the state of Jefferson, featuring a “XX” symbol representing double-crossing. (www.jeffersonstate.com)

5. Jefferson

The audacious scheme to form the state of Jefferson began in 1941 when a group of copper mining counties in northern California and southern Oregon grew fed up with insufficient government funding for their highways. In a slightly tongue-in-cheek gesture, the residents of the area convened to form a new state. A newspaper contest led to the name Jefferson, and the group went so far as to elect a judge named John Childs as its first governor. They even adopted a state flag emblazoned with a large “XX”—a reference to the double-crossing politics that had led to their secession. In a show of Jefferson pride, a group of men armed with hunting rifles blockaded the highway between Oregon and California and gave bewildered motorists a flyer that read: “You are now entering Jefferson.”

Unfortunately for the aspiring Jeffersonians, other events ultimately overshadowed their act of secession. Just three days after Judge Childs’ inauguration on December 4, 1941—which was accompanied by a parade and widespread media coverage—the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In the ensuing buildup to World War II, plans for the new state of Jefferson fell by the wayside.

Categories: American West, Benjamin Franklin, Great Depression, Native Americans, U.S. States