New Jersey was once “the Two Jerseys” (East and West). Kentucky started out as Virginia’s backyard. Connecticut once harbored imperial dreams—claiming a Western Reserve that stretched all the way to the banks of the Mississippi. The shapes of our States have a complex and unexpected history. It’s easy to forget that history owes a debt to chance: had events turned out differently in ever so slight a measure, we might have carved this country up into very different political units than the ones we have today.
For instance: we might have had a state called Jefferson nestled between California and Oregon—the dream of a determined secessionist movement that came to a sudden end when the United States’ entry into World War II changed the political mood in the region. Had things been different, we might have been able to look northward from Minnesota toward the State of Superior—a long-standing aspiration among the inhabitants of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, one which appeared as early as 1858 when locals held a constitutional convention in the village of Ontonagon (some proposed that the state be called Ontonagon). An 1845 joint resolution by the U.S. Congress permitted as many as four new states to be created within the territory that came into the Union as Texas. That resolution might have led to the birth of the State of Lincoln (proposed to Congress in 1869) which would have been found between the Rio Grande and Texas’s Colorado River.
One of the most unique states that almost came to be was the State of Sequoyah. The State of Sequoyah, proposed to Congress in 1905, was to have been created out of the Oklahoma Territory as a State with a strong Native American majority. Covering a territory that corresponds roughly to the eastern half of today’s State of Oklahoma, the would-be state included land that had been allotted to Native Americans through a variety of treaties following the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. By the end of the nineteenth century, the tribes had been sovereign over land in Oklahoma for several decades. The political scene, however, was changing. The Curtis Act of 1898, an instrument meant to lead to the assimilation of the Native American population, was about to come into force, effectively abolishing tribal courts and tribal governments in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. Anticipating the new realities, representatives of the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations, and later the chiefs of the Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole Tribes (taken together, these were known as the Five Civilized Tribes), gathered in August and September of 1905 to convene a constitutional convention. Their goal: to create a state government that might replace tribal sovereignty with a rough second best—Indian sovereignty through democratic majority. Their efforts yielded a constitution, which included a bill of rights, provisions for the separation of powers among three branches of government, the establishment of counties and their borders, the regulation of trade, and the prohibition of the manufacture of intoxicating spirits among other things. They adopted the name Sequoyah for their state after a suggestion by pamphleteer James A. Norman that the state be named for the storied inventor of the script used to write the Cherokee language.
Strong political forces, however, were aligned against them. With Congress and the White House controlled by Republicans, a heavily democratic Native American state stood no chance of being admitted to the Union under the terms presented by the Sequoyah Convention. Congress refused to consider the 1905 proposal. A reconfigured proposal including the western half of the territory (and a large Euro-American population) resulted in the birth of the State of Oklahoma soon afterward in 1907.
Another unique story relates to the pre-history of Utah. After the U.S. signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico in 1848, it became clear to the Mormon settlers in the West that the new Southwest—which the U.S. had wrested from Mexico as part of the negotiated peace—would soon be divided up into federally controlled territories. The Mormons saw this as an opportunity to take the lead in the political organization of the new territory. In this they wasted no time; by July of 1849, the Mormon community had convened a constitutional convention, drafted and adopted a constitution and set about petitioning Congress for the statehood of the State of Deseret.
According to the preamble of the State’s constitution, the State of Deseret would encompass all the lands of the Great Basin, stretching from the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas to the Rocky Mountains in the West, running north-south from the drainage divide of the Columbia River to the Gulf of California—an area including all of modern Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Southern California as well as parts of Colorado and Oregon. The preamble proposed that Deseret would be a bulwark of civil order against the anarchy left behind by the withdrawal of Mexican sovereignty and the “failure” of the U.S. Congress to take any measures to guarantee law and order in the region. Legal aspects of the Deseret Constitution are familiar in many details—it was based on the constitution of the State of Iowa. It delineated the separation of powers; it created a militia and provided guidelines for the administration of elections; it also enumerated a list of the civil rights guaranteed to all citizens. Among these was the free exercise of religion to which was added both that no single religion would ever be preferred by the state and that no religious test would ever be administered to seekers of public office.
In practice, however, the state was—for the duration of its existence—the civil arm of the Mormons’ western settlement. A group of about 11,000 Mormons had come west in 1847 with Brigham Young to seek religious autonomy in the wilderness. The settlement grew rapidly (in the next thirty years these settlers were followed by as many as sixty thousand more devout Mormon immigrants from the East); the church leadership naturally held complete political control over the community. This was not necessarily an advantage for statehood. Prejudice against the new religion was strong and Congress was cool to the idea of a Mormon state, preferring to establish a federal territory where the governor might be hand selected by the President. Additional hostility to Deseret’s statehood came from slave states’ opposition to the creation of a new free state in the West.
Deseret was the de facto civil authority in its borders for two years until the creation of the Utah Territory, when on April 4, 1851 it was dissolved by the General Assembly. But the dream survived initial failure. The Mormons reprised the petition for the statehood of Deseret, unsuccessfully, in 1856, 1862 and 1872.
At the time the first Deseret constitution was created, the community in the West was less than two years old. The Mormons did not yet have a printing press in the region. As a result, the constitution was printed in Kanesville, Iowa (the historic starting point of the Mormons’ trail westward); several copies were dispatched from there to Washington, D.C. A quite rare copy of the Kanesville imprint of the Deseret Constitution, along with a 1905 copy of the Constitution of the State of Sequoyah, can be found in the Rare Book Collection of the Law Library of Congress.
Great job as always, Nathan!
I am an avid history reader and enjoy unusual trivia and details that are not readily available. I am also working on my PhD dissertation (and I am definitely more than a senior citizen), so my time is much more limited than it used to be. I have thoroughly enjoyed your site, although I have to discipline myself and use it as a treat-well-earned or I will spend hours. This one, in particular, was enjoyable and informative.
I am saddened that so many young people do not know our history. I spoke with a very bright young man, aged 16, who is quite well read and a good student. He actually did not know who Abraham Lincoln was. I kid you not.
Thank you for your hard work, dedication, and sharing. In case you ever doubt it, you are appreciated.
The Edmon Low Library at Oklahoma State University has a website http://okmaps.library.okstate.edu/
that is devoted to a growing collection of digital maps of Oklahoma and Indian Territory. The map of Sequoyah has been a frequently used item within the collection. Many do not know its history and it, with the proposed state of Oklahoma Territory are used many times in presentations to young and old. Visit the site and let us know what you think.
Just a quick factual note. One would look northward from Wisconsin at The state of Superior(or today the UP of Michigan). You have as Minnesota looking northward towards it. The source you cite even notes that it would be Wisconsin to the south. Just pointing out an error you probably didn’t catch in editing.
Fine way of explaining, and pleasant post to
take data concerning my presentation focus, which i am going to deliver in school.
Are there any more detailed references to the 1858 Ontonagon Convention?
Interesting article. Just one correction: the State of Sequoyah would have had 60,000 native Americans out of a population of 600,000. So, while it would have been more influenced by Indian culture and politics than the state of Oklahoma that would have presumably been born out of the western counties, it hardly would have been, as written here, a “strong Native American majority.”