Absaroka — the State that Never Was

Absaroka the proposed state that never was

Talk of secession was in the air. No, it wasn’t slavery in the days leading up to the Civil War, and the movement wasn’t fueled with weapons and rebellion. This time, secessionists planned to use the legitimate force of law, and they wouldn’t be forming their own country; they wanted to create a brand new state: the state of Absaroka.

It was 1939. The Great Depression had been particularly hard on the ranchers and small-town citizens of the western United States. Disgruntled citizens had grown weary of the unrelenting droughts, invasion of grasshoppers, and lack of attention from their government. Those in the smaller communities tended to have greatly differing values and priorities than those who held the political power in the state capitals. Consequently, whatever federal aid did manage to get allocated to the states never seemed to make its way to the rural communities. The only way to fix that problem, it seemed, would be to break away from existing state governments and form a brand new state, one more attuned to the needs of local citizens.

The movement gathered enough steam that it generated an official proposal, complete with a publicity strategy. The proposed state would be formed out of pieces of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, creating what would be the 49th state of the union.

Map for proposed state of Absaroka
Proposed state and county boundaries for the state of Absaroka.

The name for this new state was to be Absaroka (pronounced ab-SOHR-ka) after the Crow word for “children of the large-beaked bird.” The Absarokans held a strong conservative/libertarian view of politics, believing that government governs best that governs least. They objected to the continual flow of tax dollars to colleges, cities, and the pet projects of legislators to the neglect of the infrastructure and support of the sparsely-populated regions. They also opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, which vastly increased the size of federal government and control.

Absaroka license plate
Proposed design for a license plate for the state of Absaroka.

The movement found a spokesman in A.R. Swickard. Swickard was the street commissioner of Sheridan and a former baseball player. Proclaiming himself to the governor of Absaroka, he went on the road to build support for the separatist movement. Swickward went from town to town, speaking at Rotary Club meetings, town halls, and county fairs. His publicity kit included a map, showing state and county lines, a license plate, and a state flag emblazoned with the number 49. Swickard even sponsored a Miss Absaroka contest. Dorothy Fellows was crowned as the first and only Miss Absaroka. She became a spokeswoman for the cause.

Esther Aspaas (left) and “Miss Absaroka,” Dorothy Fellows (right) at a promotional event.

The movement continued to gain momentum. Although not officially recognized by any state or national government, Absaroka hosted a “state visit” in 1939 when the King of Norway, Haakon VII, toured southeast Montana. Absarokians claimed the event for their own, portraying it as official recognition of their claim to statehood.

Swickard continued to seek support for the Absaroka proposal. He conducted grievance hearings in Sheridan, where residents of Absaroka sought redress for wrongs committed against them by the state of Wyoming. Swickard knew how to play to the media and used the hearings to generate publicity and to shame state legislators. Embarrassed by the unwanted publicity, Wyoming and Montana leaders began to pay more attention to their eastern ranchers.

Whatever momentum the separatist movement generated, it all came to a halt when the United States entered World War II. Absarokans united with their fellow countrymen in support of the war effort. Once the war was over, the country entered into a period of unprecedented prosperity, Absarokans included. The efforts to separate and form a new state lost steam and rescinded into the folklore of the region.

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