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Vice Blog

A Brief History of the American Town That Seceded 'Til It Ran Out of Booze

As chatter about a so-called 'Calexit' gets louder, a look back at California's Rough and Ready.

Thumbnail photo courtesy Orange County Archives.

Though it's lingered in the air for some time, serious talk of a California secession has ramped up after the 2016 US election. Late last month, supporters submitted a ballot measure to the state's attorney general, hoping to see a vote on this so-called Calexit in 2018. Although secession from the Union is likely a pipe dream (none of the options are very viable), it wouldn't be the first time folks around those parts withdrew from the country and made up their own nation. It all took place 166 years ago in a small town 62 miles northeast of Sacramento called Rough and Ready. As with most of the towns in that region, its origins involve a group of dudes looking to strike it rich. In this case, it was a gang of about 40 miners who, in 1849, made the trek from Shellsburg, Wisconsin, to chase the gold vein that was famously struck nearby at Sutter's Mill. This motley crew was led by Captain A.A. Townsend, who'd served under then-president Zachary Taylor during the Mexican War in a series of battles wherein Taylor had earned the nickname "Rough and Ready." Townsend co-opted the name for his mining contingent, which in turn became the name of the town.

Rough and Ready was a booming find. One account claims the discovery of a gold nugget weighing 18 pounds, and the town's Chamber of Commerce says the area soon exploded to a population above 3,000 in the months after the initial strike. As you'd expect, the region's unsettled nature led to an aura of chaos around the digs. As Michael J. Trinklein writes in Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It, "In the era of the California Gold Rush, pretty much anything was possible." Trinklein compares the Gold Rush crew to the party fraternity in Animal House, where young men without the "usual authorities" of pastors, wives, or official government were allowed to roam chaotically unchecked in the Western wilderness. In early 1850, though, that came to an end. The California state government was imposing a tax on all mining claims, and taxes—as remains the case—weren't all that popular. So on April 7, 1850, just a few short months before California would be admitted into US statehood, the town's residents met and proposed a secession from California and the burgeoning United States, effectively forming its own independent republic. The group elected Colonel E.F. Brundage as the new president, who issued the new republic's manifesto: "We… deem it necessary and prudent to withdraw from said Territory (of California) and from the United States of America to form, peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must, the Great Republic of Rough and Ready." Detailed in its subsequent official Constitution—which was essentially a copy-and-paste job of the US version, even including the "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" line—the borders of the new republic would be: "[T]hat portion of Nevada County within the Sovereign Territory of California, laying west of Nevada and Grass Valley Townships, having the South Yuba River as its northerly boundary, Bear River on the southerly side, and the marked line of Yuba County in the West." In all, it contained upwards of two hundred square miles of land. The decree wasn't met with volleys of gunfire or a congregation of mounted troops sent to bring the traitors to justice. By all accounts, the California government met the mutiny with a collective yawn, so the region stayed its own peaceful nation-state—for about three months. Fourth of July was just around the corner, and this was an era when parties celebrating the day were huge. Every mining town that was already drowning in whisky, gambling, and prostitutes kicked its debauchery up a notch on the nation's designated birthday. The miners now living in the Great Republic of Rough and Ready had gotten used to these festivities, and frankly, it didn't seem right to be celebrating if they weren't part of the country anymore.

Of perhaps more urgent importance, however, was that saloons in the nearby towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City—both still firmly entrenched in California—had refused to sell alcohol to the "foreigners" from Rough and Ready. This didn't sit well with the town, which was mostly composed of hard-drinking German Lutherans from Wisconsin. Having to pay taxes was a drag, but not being able to score a drink was hell. On the morning of July 4, 1850, Rough and Ready's elite members returned into a meeting and voted to immediately rejoin California, who welcomed the town back. A murky technicality discovered by the US Postal service shortly after World War II showed the town had never been readmitted to the Union, and therefore had been operating as a "rogue state" for nearly a century.

Now, there's not much left to the town (see the video above). It claims a population of 963, nearly all of whom show up on the last Sunday of every June for the the town's Secession Days celebration. It features old-timey music, a classic pancake breakfast, and a musical reenactment of those secessionist days of yore called "The Saga of Rough and Ready." The folks of Rough and Ready never could say no to a kickass party.

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