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Eastern Washington: Most likely to secede ever since 1861

(Jesse Bowser, Unsplash)

With rumblings of secession returning last week to Olympia, courtesy of two legislators from Spokane Valley, the notion of Eastern Washington splitting off and becoming a separate state is once again on the well-worn table at the state capitol.

History shows that people and lawmakers east of the Cascades have been trying to break free from their Western Washington overlords for more than 150 years. And though most of these efforts have been symbolic in nature, there was one time when the easterners actually got away with it.

Washington Territory was created by Congress in 1853, carved from a large chunk of what had been Oregon Territory. The new territory came about because people living north of the Columbia River felt ill-served by the Oregon Territorial government, headquartered in Oregon City (south of Portland), and then eventually in Salem, even farther away in the Willamette River Valley.

When it first came into existence 166 years ago, Washington Territory stretched east all the way to the Rocky Mountains. Idaho and Montana didn’t yet exist, so Washington Territory crossed what’s now the Idaho Panhandle and reached into what’s now Montana.

When Oregon became a state on Valentine’s Day 1859, more land in what had been eastern Oregon Territory was added to Washington Territory. This left “all of the present State of Idaho and portions of Montana and Wyoming attached to Washington,” wrote Edmond S. Meany in his landmark (and highly readable) 1909 history of Washington.

Just a year after Oregon became a state, Washington Territory west of the Cascades was still only sparsely populated by settlers, and Eastern Washington had even fewer non-natives. Then, a series of discoveries of silver and gold – and accompanying “rushes” of prospectors and would-be miners in the area around Coeur d’Alene and Fort Boise – meant that the population in Washington Territory east of the Cascades began to increase.

“By this time, the vast area that may here be designated as eastern Washington had begun to rival the Puget Sound region in population,” Edmond Meany wrote, describing the situation circa 1860. “Naturally enough [the residents east of the mountains] were opposed to looking longer toward Olympia for legislative favors and to making that long journey to transact public business.”

What came next was a series of political moves by elected officials in Eastern Washington who sought to break off from the west side by creating a new jurisdiction east of the Cascades.

warrant
“Johnson’s Washington, Oregon, Idaho Map of 1863” shows the newly-created Idaho Territory, which previously had been part of Washington Territory. (Washington State Historical Society)

Territory of Walla Walla / Idaho

First came an effort to create the “Territory of Walla Walla,” when Walla Walla was the largest city in the territory.

“On January 29, 1861, there was brought up for consideration in the [Washington Territory] [H]ouse of [R]epresentatives a memorial to Congress asking for the creation of the Territory of Walla Walla,” Edmond Meany wrote. “It was lost on the final vote of 12 for and 18 against, even though a number of western Washington men favored the plan.”

Two years later, wrote Meany, the “eastern men” asked the Territorial Legislature to skip over the process of creating a new territory and instead “to submit to the voters of Washington Territory a constitution for the proposed new state of Idaho.”

This legislation also failed, and so “ended one of the first moves toward statehood, and the pioneer citizens of those eastern mountains and valleys [had] been ruthlessly snubbed,” Meany wrote.

Not to be deterred, the Idaho boosters went directly to the United States Congress, where Meany says they “obtained a prompt and much more favorable hearing.” Idaho Territory was created in March 1863, and the border of what would become Washington state was fixed.

But what about those remaining Washingtonians west of of what was now Idaho Territory? Were they unhappy about losing all that prime “Gem of the Mountains” real estate?

Historian and author Hubert Howe Bancroft (who had a lot of help writing the many volumes of Western history attributed to him) says yes and no.

“Although the loss of a large extend of rich mining territory was regarded with disapproval by the remainder of the population,” Bancroft wrote, “the benefit to the whole of the more rapid development of all the resources of the country was cause for congratulation, both then and later, the mines having given an impetus to the growth of the territory that agriculture alone could not have done in a long period of time.”

Washington becomes a state

Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, Washington Territory residents were eager to become a state. The next serious steps toward this were taken in 1878, when a constitution was adopted. This, says historian Bancroft, spurred another attempt to adjust the borders of Washington and Idaho.

“The forward impulse given to the prosperity of Washington revived in the northern counties of Idaho the project of annexation to that commonwealth, which, it was believed, would soon arrive at statehood, and whose constitution, adopted in 1878 by a vote of the people of the Idaho Panhandle as well as of Washington, included the counties north of the Salmon river range of mountains,” Bancroft wrote. “In this form the Washington [Territory] delegate [to the US Congress], Mr. [Thomas Hurley] Brents, advocated in [C]ongress the admission of Washington, and its legislature in 1881-1882 passed a memorial for an enabling act, including this portion of Idaho.”

Thus, if Washington Territory had been successful in its drive to statehood in the early 1880s, the eastern part of the state would have included what’s now the Idaho Panhandle – that northern portion of Idaho that includes Coeur d’Alene – and that’s considered by some to be a part of the Spokane metropolitan area. The Panhandle, for example, is in the Pacific Time Zone, while Boise and much of the rest of Idaho is in the Mountain Time Zone.

But it was not to be, wrote Bancroft, and you can blame Idaho politics.

“The politicians about this time saw in this subject opportunity for a party issue, and seized upon it, making it the point on which the election of 1882 was lost and won, George Ainslee, [D]emocratic candidate for [Idaho Territory’s representative to] [C]ongress, opposing, and T.F. Singiser, [R]epublican, advocating it, Singiser being elected by a majority of nearly 3,000,” wrote Bancroft. “In 1884, however, the [D]emocrats having put an annexation plank in their platform, returned to power, and Singiser was defeated, while John Hailey was elected to [C]ongress, and secured the passage of a bill for annexation, which passed both houses, and only failed to become a law by the failure of the president to sign it.”

Bancroft wrote that support for annexation of the Panhandle by Washington waned as population and industry in Idaho waxed. Somehow, Bancroft wrote, what had once been favored by a majority “began to be denounced as a scheme ‘born in local jealousy and petty spite, fostered by political hatred and party spleen, and advocated by many political jobbers and tricksters,’ and as ‘thoroughly distasteful to a majority of the people of Idaho, and repugnant to the best interests of the territory.’”

Thus, this attempt to achieve statehood failed, and Washington would not join the Union until November 1889. Idaho was not far behind, becoming a state in July 1890.

And it was less than seven years later when the first mention of splitting off the eastern part of the state appeared in a newspaper.

As the timeline below clearly shows, the issue of secession, in various shapes and forms, has kept coming up again and again ever since – even though constitutional experts disagree on whether secession is even legal.

State of Liberty: history of secession attempts

June 24, 1896
A report in the Coulee City News says that Eastern Washington is ready to secede from Washington state over the issue of bimetallism.

April 8, 1907 – State of Lincoln
State Representative William E. Humphrey, Republican of Washington, is reported to be supportive of creating the “State of Lincoln,” but is also skeptical about the likelihood of uniting parts of three states (Washington, Idaho and even some parts of northeastern Oregon).

February 20, 1913 – Return of the State of Lincoln
A state senator from Spokane proposes that the “State of Lincoln” be made from counties in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho. But, hold on a minute, says a Seattle Times editorial, President Lincoln’s motto was “Union,” not “dismemberment.”

January 26, 1915 – The State of Lincoln Strikes Back
Senator R.A. Hutchinson delivered his “long-expected” memorial to Idaho legislature for creation of state of Lincoln from Eastern Washington and Idaho Panhandle. A resolution introduced later in that session reads, in part, “right and justice demand that the eastern portion of Washington be created into a separate state.” It goes nowhere.

February 16, 1921
Northern Idaho counties (the “Panhandle”) announce their intent to secede from the rest of Idaho south of the Salmon River Mountains. The effort fizzles, and the Panhandle remains part of the Gem State.

February 19, 1921
Six years after his first attempt, Senator R.A. Hutchinson tries once again to create the “State of Lincoln” from counties east of the Cascades; The Seattle Times publishes an editorial opposing secession, citing high levels of cooperation between both sides of the mountains. “Never previously, perhaps, have Eastern and Western Washington been so harmonious and so aggressively active in common causes as they are at this moment,” the Times writes, citing statewide support for irrigation in the Columbia Basin, and economic development for Puget Sound.

January 8, 1922
A planning meeting is held in Spokane for “State of Lincoln” boosters led by Herman H. Taylor of Sand Point, former Idaho lieutenant governor.

March 9, 1923 – Washington State House of Representatives laugh at Lincoln
The Seattle Times writes, “Legislators made light of a resolution petitioning Congress to create a new state to consist of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho to be known as the state of Lincoln, which was introduced in the House yesterday afternoon and defeated by a big majority. The measure was presented by Representative H.P. Rude of King [County]. It provided for a constitutional convention for the new state in the Spokane Armory June 20, 1923.”

1925
West Virginia considered changing its name to more clearly differentiate itself from Virginia; “State of Lincoln” is on the list of possible new names. Nearly 100 years later, the state is still known as West Virginia. Earlier, circa 1912, “State of Lincoln” had also been considered for what became New Mexico.

March 13, 1929 – State of Lincoln will not die
The Seattle Times quotes an editorial from Spokane’s Spokesman Review newspaper laying out the thinking for creating a new state east of the mountains. The Times’ editorial adds, “It is for these reasons that schemes for state division never get far.”

March 8, 1935
A Seattle Times editorial is headlined “Split State Reappears,” when legislation is introduced by Senator Miller of King County to create a new state east of the Cascades.
“Senator Miller may have felt at the end of his patience,” the editorial reads, “when he decided that the best way to be rid of his East Side colleagues would be to give them a state of their own.”

November 12, 1935
The Seattle Times reports on its editorial pages that a newspaper in Massachusetts called The Boston Evening Transcript has helpfully suggested that all of Washington state change its name to “Lincoln” to ease postal confusion, thereby limiting misdirected mail from ending up in Washington, DC rather than Washington state (and vice versa). The Times’ editorial ends on a snarky note: “Anyway, the name of Lincoln has been tentatively appropriated by Eastern Washingtonians for the new state they threaten to set up whenever they get good and mad at fellow citizens to the westward.”

February 2, 1937 – State of King and State of Roosevelt
Representative A.W. Clark of Clark County proposes creating the “State of King” comprising only King County – a state within a state. Clark said that “the nature of King County persons gave rise ‘to economic and political antagonisms and strifes which have enlarged the gap and reflected in hostile legislation against the rest of the people not conducive to the peace and well-being of the citizens of the state.’” Further, Clark said, King County residents are of a “heterogenous, heterologous, heteronomous and heteromorphistic nature.” The Bellingham Herald weighs in, saying that Clark’s multisyllabic damning of King County is just an updated version of the old “cow counties against Seattle” phenomenon.

A few weeks later, Senator James A. Murphy proposes creation of the “State of Roosevelt” for that part of Washington east of the Cascades, but his motives for the proposal are not clear. “Perhaps,” The Seattle Times wonders, “he’s just fed up by contact with East Side colleagues and would be rid of them once and for all.”

February 4, 1939
Showing that all this talk of secession isn’t restricted to east of the Cascades, Representative Jack Petit, Democrat of Pacific, says he’s in favor of the splitting off of counties in Southwest Washington at the mouth of the Columbia River so that they can be annexed by Oregon. Petit, who opposes Washington’s ban on fish traps on the Columbia, points to Oregon’s lack of similar restrictions and the benefits available to Beaver State fishermen. “They might just as well secede from Washington and join up with Oregon,” Petit told the Associated Press. “Then they would be able to take advantage of the resources of the Columbia River.”

December 15, 1941 – State of Jefferson
In southern Oregon and northern California, years of effort to create the “State of Jefferson” come to an end. Newspapers report that the reason for the effort ceasing is not the United States’ entering World War II, but instead because the state governments of Oregon and California have promised more and better roads in the area.

1985, 1991, 2001, 2005, 2015, 2017 and 2019
A series of proposals are made by Republican lawmakers to create a new state east of the Cascades. In January 2019, Representative Bob McCaslin and Representative Matt Shea of Spokane Valley become the latest to introduce measures to create the “State of Liberty” from 20 counties east of the Cascades.

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