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The State of Absaroka
Redrawing our borders would have left us without the Badlands, Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.
When disgruntled westerners tried to redraw the map of the United States in 1939, one of the big land-losers would have been South Dakota. If the secessionists had their way, the Great State of Absaroka (pronounced ab-SOHR-ka) would have consisted of western South Dakota, northern Wyoming, and southeastern Montana.
The exact origins of the movement are hard to trace, but rumors of secession found willing ears in the 1930s. Ranchers and small town citizens, ravaged by repeated years of droughts and grasshopper plagues, were frustrated with the lack of federal aid from the New Deal sweeping the nation. Several South Dakotans met with like-minded residents of northern Wyoming to contemplate secession. Rock-ribbed Republicans with a libertarian bent populated both regions.
The Wyoming contingent was upset with the Democratic control of the state legislature in Cheyenne. They felt misunderstood and largely ignored by the southern half of the state. The movement gained momentum when residents of southeastern Montana joined the cause.
Named after the Crow word for “children of the large-beaked bird,” Absaroka was short-grass country populated primarily by self-reliant ranchers who eked a living from the land. Suspicious of federal involvement, they were united by the desire to be left alone — unless they needed help with those grasshoppers.
Some of the same regionalism that inspired the secessionists is present today. In the height of the Depression, state funds found their way more easily to towns with institutions, such as a college or hospital. Communities under the Absaroka banner were more sparsely populated and, especially in the days of the Model A, a tedious drive from the state capital and decision-makers who wrote relief checks. Feeling short-changed by state officials and by the federal New Deal programs, the rural leaders found common cause in the Absaroka movement.
The secessionist fervor peaked in 1939 when A.R. Swickard, the street commissioner of Sheridan and a former baseball player, took charge of the movement and proclaimed himself governor of Absaroka. Half kidding and half serious, Swickard and his compatriots drew a map of their proposed state in the basement of the Sheridan Rotary Club, which served as rebel headquarters. The map cut a straight line through northern Wyoming, a straight line through western South Dakota, and took a square chunk out of southeastern Montana. Swickard wasn’t particularly concerned about natural boundaries such as the Missouri River.
With borders established, the secessionists turned to the obvious next steps to forming a new state: printing license plates and holding a Miss Absaroka contest. Every legitimate state needs a beauty queen. The one and only Miss Absaroka was crowned in 1939. A few surviving photographs show her with a demure smile and an Absaroka banner draped proudly over her shoulder.
License plates were printed and distributed to rebels and their supporters. The year 1939 also saw the first and only “state visit” for Absaroka, when the King of Norway toured southeast Montana. Absarokians claimed the event for their own, portraying it as an official recognition of their claim to statehood.
Helen Graham was a teenager at Belle Fourche High School during the ’30s. Her family lived in the southeast corner of Montana where all three states meet. She doesn’t recall that her parents were unhappy Montana residents. “It wasn’t a well-known movement,” she told us in 2009. “I always felt it was a group of men, like Rotary Club members, getting together and throwing ideas around. I don’t think it was anything serious,” she laughs.
Graham, who worked 31 years at the Sheridan Public Library, doesn’t regret that the attempt was unsuccessful. “I hardly think anyone would have been happy with that deal, do you?”
Well, perhaps A.R. Swickard would have been pleased. Capitalizing on publicity from the Miss Absaroka contest, Governor Swickard held grievance hearings in Sheridan. Residents of Absaroka came to seek redress for wrongs committed against them by the state of Wyoming. With the hearings came the media, and the news coverage attracted the overdue attention of legislators in Cheyenne. Slightly embarrassed by the publicity generated by a secessionist movement within their borders, Wyoming and Montana leaders began to pay more attention to their eastern ranchers. South Dakota’s governor during the New Deal was Belvidere rancher Tom Berry, so it’s unlikely that the West River people felt as neglected as their counterparts in would-be western Absaroka.
Pacified by increased attention, the secessionist activities subsided toward the end 1939 and ceased entirely with the onset of World War II. Absarokians united with their fellow citizens in common dedication and sacrifice. After the war, the country set about healing itself from its wounds and enjoying its first brush with prosperity in 20 years. The Eisenhower era descended on the U.S. and the Absaroka movement was largely forgotten.
However, South Dakotans still debate the geographic and cultural differences between East and West, and whether they impact the character of the people. Is West River a land of rough-and-ready ranchers and libertarians? Is East River the place for farm populists and business types who more willingly embrace government as a means to solve peoples’ problems?
A.R. Swickard sought to exploit such differences — real or imagined — to create a new state. He either ignored or failed to recognize the thought that a state’s diversity might make it stronger economically, as well as a more interesting place to call home.
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the July/August 2009 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.