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The pandemic reignited rural secessionist movements and upended one county government

Above: State of Jefferson themed merchandise for sale in a Colusa County restaurant. Aaron Anderer via Flickr

By Felicity Barringer

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We explore the issues, personalities, and trends that people are talking about around the West.

For decades, as some rural Californians living in the woodlands of the state’s far north have felt isolated, exploited, and oppressed by distant state and federal governments, a secessionist movement has simmered. In the 1940s, they adopted a name — the State of Jefferson, a breakaway region combining  counties in Northern California and Southern Oregon — and a flag – green and yellow with two X’s symbolizing the rejection of state governments in Sacramento and Salem.

Over the years, support for secession has neither disappeared nor been universally embraced: as of 2016, six northern California counties have officially backed the idea: the supervisors of five voted for it and voters in a sixth county agreed. Voters or supervisors in five others rejected the idea. 

But secession always seemed symbolic. Now, anger at everything from government mandates combating COVID-19 to the lies about the 2020 election have re-ignited smoldering fires; they are burning hot. Some demonstrators at the January 6 Capitol riot waved a state of Jefferson flag, the Washington Monthly reported last year.

Increasingly, journalists and scholars are examining both the secessionist State of Jefferson supporters and an overlapping group who want to create a “Greater Idaho” incorporating the eastern and southern counties of Oregon and some in northern California. 

Now attention is riveted on one northern California county, Shasta, whose government is now controlled by anti-government forces.

The isolationism described by James Pogue in his article in the April issue of Harper’s, began 75 years ago, when, in his words, a rural Oregon mayor’s 

Calls for infrastructure development gave birth to a unifying cross-border ideology: that this rural expanse populated by miners, ranchers, and loggers had been mistreated and misunderstood by a government run by urbanites, whose way of life depended on the resources the region produced, but who regarded the people who actually produced them as backward and alien.

When the secession movement revived a decade ago, Shasta County’s supervisors did not back it as those in neighboring Siskiyou and Modoc counties had. Shasta County, named for the imposing mountain whose runoff feeds the Sacramento River, currently has about 180,000 residents. Some 80 percent are White; over the decades, employment has evolved, migrating from forestry, hunting and mining jobs in the early 20th century to jobs constructing Shasta dam in the mid-century to jobs today in health care, social services, and retail. A growing number of urbanites have bought second homes.   

Covid restrictions spur a recall 

But the overall demographics don’t capture the anger that brought anti-government protestors to a county office that had been shut as part of COVID-19 protocols. Two supportive supervisors opened the offices to hear protests of COVID-19 protocols.  In remarks flashed around the country to the alarm of some and the delight of others, one protestor declared — “the days of your tyranny are drawing to a close, and the legitimacy of your government is waning.” Further, “When the ballot box is gone, there is only the cartridge box. You have made bullets expensive. But luckily for you, ropes are reusable.”

A freight train trundles past Mount Shasta. Historically, timber and railroads created prosperity elsewhere from the natural resources found in northern California and southern Oregon. Amy the Nurse via Flickr

Angry Shasta residents have focused their animosity not just on distant legislatures but also on local officials who don’t actively oppose the villains they hate, from Gov. Gavin Newsom to Dr. Anthony Fauci. After enduring months of attacks, Donnell Ewert,  director of the county Health and Human Services Agency, retired.

Starting in 2021, Constitution-quoting voters also sought to recall three supervisors deemed insufficiently opposed to Sacramento’s COVID-19 health mandates. Help came from Reverge Anselmo, a wealthy Connecticut man who once had an estate and winery in Shasta County, then fell afoul of state water regulations and county land-use regulations more than a decade ago. After a bitter fight, Anselmo  paid $1.3 million to settle with the county, then moved out, the Los Angeles Times reported

Last year, Anselmo poured thousands of dollars, eventually totalling $450,000, into the recall effort. 

In the case of two supervisors, the recall movement, supported by a local militia, failed to gather enough signatures for a vote. But in early February, 55 percent of voters recalled a third supervisor, the former Redding police chief, Leonard Moty. Members of the Recall Shasta movement had labeled him a socialist. 

What had been a 3-2 majority of traditional Republicans became a 3-2 majority representing citizens in revolt, resentful for everything from vaccine mandates to what they believed was a form of critical race theory in county schools’ curricula. 

The first action of the new board chair was to call a closed session to examine the contract of the local health office. Dr. Karen Ramstrom had been the local face of state health requirements, and some residents loudly called for her dismissal, dubbing her a “tyrant.” But the March meeting of the board featured many expressions of public support, along with the condemnations. The closed session  resulted in no immediate change in Dr. Ramstrom’s status. But it’s not clear how long the reprieve will last.

In the March meeting, the new board majority also ended the local state of emergency and policies surrounding COVID-19 testing and vaccination requirements. 

In the April board meeting, critics of the newcomers opened fire, not just supporting Dr. Ramstrom but attacking her opponents. One said that they “are intent on molding Shasta County into your own ignorant, petty, anti-medical” image. This citizen was followed by one from the other side, saying Dr. Ramstrom is “an unelected bureaucrat” who “blindly accepted what the political machine spat out.”

The next target of one far-right supervisor, Patrick Henry Jones, was the county’s chief executive officer, Matt Pontes. Pontes this week accused the supervisor of trying to blackmail him: if Pontes  didn’t resign, Jones would make public Pontes’s felony conviction in a robbery that took place 28 years ago. Pontes released the details himself; they were also sent to a local television station. 

On April 19, the board of supervisors voted 4-1 to support him, with Jones alone dissenting.

It’s hard to know exactly which of these recent events will be the harbinger of the way this anti-government government in Shasta County works. If symbolism is the goal, then it will surely vote to support secession. This wouldn’t make much of a difference, since few northern counties have been willing to line up to join the State of Jefferson. But if dismembering the county’s government apparatus  is a  goal, the new majority of supervisors hasn’t yet shown their willingness to actually do so.

But it won’t be surprising if they vote for secession.

E minibus, unum: secessionists rally low-population areas

Historically and today, secessionist movements in the Northwestern US have had a particularly rural character. Here are a few recent examples.

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Staff and Contributors

Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

Associate editor

Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and ABCNews.com. MORE »

Syler Peralta-Ramos

Editorial Assistant

Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.

‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.

Bruce E. Cain

Faculty Director

Kate Gibson

Program Manager

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