In the most South-Western county of Missouri lies the town of Noel. Today this town is the home of only 1,832 people, a fact that belies its history. During the Spring of 1961, Noel was the capital of its own independent political entity; the McDonald Territory.
The causes of the secession of McDonald County from the State of Missouri were unique when compared the many secessionist movements of American history. The roots of this movement can be traced to the decision of the Missouri State Highway Commission to omit Noel, and most other McDonald County towns, from its “Family Vacationland” map in 1961. This was detrimental to the tourist industry, an important source of income for the county, and therefore angered many of its citizens.
In response to this apparent slight against the county by the state government, the people of McDonald County decided to establish their independence from Missouri. They even went so far as to establish border control with a territorial militia, as well as issuing visas to non-residents who entered the territory. In addition to establishing a militia, the people of McDonald Territory established a seat of government at Noel, not the traditional county seat at Pineville, with the new government being run by elected officials. Amongst these officials there was talk of McDonald Territory becoming the fifty-first state of the United States or joining the states of Arkansas or Oklahoma.
The secessionist movement eventually came to an end in the summer of 1961 when the Missouri government proclaimed that if the secessionist movement were not put to an end, all state employee retirement pensions would be suspended, all state employees would be fired, and all state funding would be withheld. The movement officially ended as Missouri Supreme Court Justice Mary Russell read a letter from the Missouri House of representatives asking McDOnald County to stay with Missouri, promising that it would be put back on the map. The citizens were thus pleased, and showing no more objections, reunited with the state of Missouri.
We hope to bring more awareness to this often forgotten piece of Missouri history through our course website. Through exploring the McDonald County archives, obtaining oral histories, and the State Archives in Jefferson City.
Jason Sorens defines secession in his book as “the withdrawal of territory and the people on that territory from the sovereignty of an existing state and the establishment of a newly independent state with sovereignty over that territory and its people.” He also makes it clear that secession is relatively rare, while secessionist political parties or groups are much more common. Secessionist movements, as defined by Sorens, are groups that: 1. “support at least internal sovereignty covering a wide range of policy areas for a territory that does not yet possess it. and 2. does not explicitly oppose the eventual attainment of external sovereignty as well.
This actually caught be by surprise, as I had always assumed that when a state or group wished to secede, that they were seeking independence from the central government. However, Sorens says that this is not the case. One can be self governing, but not independent. Sorens uses the example of the Isle of Man, which deals with its own taxes, budget, and laws, yet cannot sign treaties or declare war, as Britain is in charge of that. Similar to how the states in the USA are sovereign over their own territory but they are not independent because the central government is actually in charge of other issues.
Governments tend to have two ways of responding to secessionist movements. They either attempt peaceful resolutions through compromise as they know that using military force may stir the secessionists to be more violent; Or they end up using their military to quell the movement because they know the secessionists are in the minority and it also displays their might to foreigners.
Because violence can erupt from secessionist rebellions, Sorens advocates for a constitutional right of secession. He believes this would decrease the violence, as secession would be quasi-legal, and it wouldn’t significantly increase the risk of states breaking up. I disagree. I think that if you give them the right to secede in the constitution, people will be more likely to use it and the government would not be able to do anything to stop it. I believe the best way to avoid secession and ethnic violence would be to hear out the minority and come to a compromise. This is supported by Ted Gurr’s claim that ethnopolitical rebellion has declined since the 90s because many nations negotiated autonomy and power-sharing settlements.
Even if the government is able to negotiate peacefully with the secessionists, there is still a risk that the group will continue to fight for more independence until they are no longer a part of the state. This is a greater risk for territories with larger amounts of natural resources, a culturally similar population, sea access, as well as other geographical and political causes.
My name is Kodey Springate. I’m from Independence, Missouri and am a Senior at Truman State University. I’m a history major, sociology minor, and hope to get into the Masters of Art and Education (MAE) program at Truman after I graduate. I plan on teaching high school history and sociology. I have always had an interest in secession and separatist movements and look forward to having this class with you all.
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