America’s Playground – Absaroka – the 49th State

    Absaroka, with its capital in Sheridan, hoped to become the 49th star on the American Flag in 1939. Whether the effort was whimsical or determined remains a question, but a state carved out of Wyoming, South Dakota, and Southeastern Montana had more than a fighting chance of joining the union at the end of the Great Depression.

    The idea of seceding was popular in the northern portion of Fremont County, too. Dubois was well inside the proposed southern border of Absaroka. Since the boundary was never officially surveyed, it was thought to possibly include the area around Bonneville, Lysite, and Lost Cabin. Ranchers, lumbermen, and farmers read stories about the federal aid flowing into the cities and heard news broadcasts on their radios, but not a one ever saw a check, program, or project designed to help them. It was a political climate eerily similar to the one in the present day with the middle and working classes taken for granted.

    New states carved out of existing ones are nothing unique. There have been at least 14 attempts to create new states, the latest being North Colorado in 2013 when people living along the Wyoming border, tried to either join the Cowboy State or create a new state after they were tired of being treated as second-class citizens by the population center in Denver.

    West Virginia was the only successful state to secede from another, and it came in the most decisive election year in American History, 1864, when Republicans needed every electoral vote they could get to re-elect Abraham Lincoln.

    Nevada came into being in 1864 as well as a Republican state in order to bolster “Honest Abe’s” tenure into a second term.

    Map of Absaroka the 49th State – h/t Sheridan Press March 5, 1939

    Absaroka was a grassroots attempt to carve a state out of the impoverished areas of Northern Wyoming, Southern Montana, and Western South Dakota.

    Absaroka is the Hidatsa word for the Crow Tribe, it’s meaning is children of the large-beaked bird. There is an Absaroka Mountain Range and from the 1960s through the early 1980s a high school athletic league called the Absaroka Conference, which had Class A teams from Torrington and Wheatland north to Buffalo and Newcastle.

    The word Absaroka gained popularity recently with the popular modern western, Longmire. If you know a little bit about Wyoming geography you quickly realize that Absaroka County, where Walt Longmire is sheriff, doesn’t make sense.

    The fictional County 24 (Wyoming has 23 real counties) is 90 miles from Jackson, 90 from Cody, 90 from Cheyenne, 90 from Sheridan, and even 90 from Lander. It’s not possible.

    What was possible was a state named Absaroka.

    The Great Depression was a difficult time in America, much more difficult for the farmers and ranchers of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West than other areas.

    When the Union Pacific Railroad rolled through Wyoming in 1869, it created a “government” corridor along its tracks on the southern border of the state.

    Cheyenne became the state capitol, Laramie the site of the University of Wyoming, Rawlins held the state penitentiary, and Evanston the state mental hospital. Many jokes have been told about how Laramie was the only real winner since the cons and the mentally disturbed were divided into the other three cities along the UP Railroad.

    Dorothy Fellows, Miss Absaroka (left), A. R. Swickard (middle), and Esther Aspaas (right), holding the proposed Absaroka state flag. h/t

    Federal aid trying to stem the harsh reality of the Great Depression flowed to metropolitan areas first and gradually filtered into smaller towns. That aid never made it to Northern Wyoming, Southern Montana, or Western South Dakota.

    The grim realities of life in a region dependent on cattle ranching, oil production, and a bit of tourism with the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and Yellowstone National Park stood starkly against the taxpayer-funded recovery efforts to areas south.

    Enter A.R. Swickard of Sheridan, Wyoming. Swickard had dreamed of being a major league baseball player, but his career fizzled after playing a few seasons in the minor leagues.

    Swickard was the Sheridan city, street, and water commissioner. Maybe it was how he was treated as a minor league baseball player, compared with the lavish lifestyles of the big league ballplayers, but whatever it was, he resented the better treatment of people and businesses outside the region he called home.

    No one knows who first came up with the idea of the State of Absaroka, but it came about as early as 1935.

    President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal rolled out soon after he was inaugurated in 1933. It promised jobs, dams, electricity, and highways across the nation. There were no dams in Absaroka, only gravel highways, no jobs, and electricity was only in the larger towns. The area hadn’t changed much since it was first settled after the Plains Indian Wars of the late 1870s.

    Absaroka was decidedly Republican, Southern Wyoming, “East River” South Dakota, and the central corridor of Montana primarily Democratic. The conservative farmers, ranchers, and miners in the area resented the shunning of their section of America by Roosevelt’s majority party.

    An independence movement began, but not at the legislative level. Proponents of Absaroka, led by Swickard, simply began referring to Absaroka as their state.

    They named Sheridan the state capital, and Swickard declared himself governor of Absaroka.

    Ester Aspaas and Dorothy Fellows (Miss Absaroka) with the Absaroka State banner. h/t Sheridan Press

    Some consider this movement entirely fanciful, just a group of people acting out a political fantasy, but some considered it very real.

    As conservatives they resented their taxes going to inner city development, but at the same time, resented all federal help in recovering from the Great Depression. They considered the New Deal a socialist movement, designed to intervene and override local control.

    Swickard didn’t try to carve out Absaroka without a little background work. He first started a petition for Sheridan County to secede from Wyoming and join Montana. That first step was to put his name in the papers in both states. The border between Wyoming and Montana is entirely political with many ranches stretching into both states. Moving a county to join a section of another state with similar political views made sense, but more importantly, it brought notoriety to the cause.

    A few outsiders took it very seriously. Samuel W. King, Congressional Representative for the Hawaii Territory, said during a session of Congress, “Hawaii is entitled by prior claim to be the 49th state. Let Absaroka be the 50th but Hawaii has claim to the 49th!”

    Political legitimacy comes in diplomatic relations with an established state or nation, Swickard was well aware of the process.

    On May 12, 1939, he met with Wyoming governor Nels Smith and came away from the meeting with this gem,” It was just a friendly chat. I told the Governor of our sister state to the south of Buffalo that we had no warlike designs, and that rumors we might try to secede by force were erroneous. We Absarokans are a peace-loving lot and while we think that we really need the state of Absaroka we are not inclined to revolution.”

    King Hakoon VII with A.R. Swickard – h/t

    Never one to miss an opportunity, Swickard learned of a visit to the Mount Rushmore project by Norwegian King Haakon VII with an adjoining trip to Yellowstone National Park. The king was simply a tourist, but Swickard located him, and Absarokan supporters claimed it as an official state visit.

    In the interim, Wyoming turned Republican in the 1938 election, but it didn’t deter the movement. Absaroka supporters claimed the Republican majority in Cheyenne still ignored the northern part of the state and secession was in order.

    License plates were issued, Miss Absaroka competed in the 1939 Miss America Pageant and coins were minted with the Absaroka seal.

    The proposed state stretched a few miles into Fremont County, at the mouth of the first tunnel going north in the Wind River Canyon on a line due east to the Nebraska Border.

    Supporters of Absaroka knew the animosity that existed between West and East River South Dakota and used that as a binding agent.

    Contestants for the Miss Absaroaka Contest hold Absaroka license plates – h/t

    Southeastern Montana was dominated by the Crow Reservation with a handful of small towns like Forsyth, Miles City, and Glendive. They weren’t getting much attention from the state capital in Helena or nearby Billings.

    It was an area of rugged individualism, the type that settled these three states originally but were now left behind as the technology of the 20th century advanced.

    Did they make it?

    No, something came up on December 7, 1941, that halted the movement immediately. Swept with political fervor after the president they loathed declared war on Germany, Japan, and Italy, the creation of Absaroka faded from memory.

    Memory faded, but after the attempted secession, WPA sidewalks sprouted in towns across the area, and if you look closely, PWA, concrete fence posts still line fields across Wyoming. The movement didn’t create a state, but it did get the feds to pay attention.

    They paid attention in Cheyenne as well, treating the region much better after Swickard had his meeting at the Rotary Club in Sheridan to establish statehood. After the proposed exit from the Equality State, the legislature in Cheyenne suddenly found more money to fund projects in the northern regions of the state.

    It is ironic that the idea that a state could thrive on tourism in the grim days of the 1930s not only survived into the 21st century but remains the mainstay of an otherwise unstable economy based on cattle, coal, oil, and natural gas.

    Coal built an empire around Gillette, a city in the heart of Absaroka, and oil, gypsum, methane, and natural gas are in abundance. The high plains grass feeds hundreds of thousands of head of cattle, but the only stable economy is Yellowstone, Devils Tower, the Black Hills, and Mount Rushmore, all tourist Meccas.

    The Sturgis motorcycle rally is indicative of the dreaming that took place with believers in Absaroka 85 years ago.

    A few “Absaroka the 49th State” license plates float around, and Dorothy Fellows will forever remain the first and only “Miss Absaroka” but it no longer exists.

    The Absaroka Conference disappeared in the 1990s. Only the Absaroka Range and the Hidatsa word remain to remind us of a fleeting attempt at secession not so long ago.

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