In 1989 there was an initiative in North Dakota to change the state's name to simply "Dakota". Is this first time an initiative was taken for a state to change its name after becoming a state within the Union. Did a state ever actually change its name after admission? Is there a federal process for changing a state's name?
Is this first time an initiative was taken for a state to change its name after becoming a state within the Union.?
Although Somewhere in America (which also contains some background on the ND name-change movements) mentions four times, apparently none of the initiatives ever got as far as becoming a resolution that was debated by the ND Legislature besides those of 1947 and 1989.
The 1947 initiative is also mentioned here:
Perhaps records from the ND legislature are available online on one of the state's sites, which would give us an authoritative source for the 1947 initiative, but I have not yet done an extensive search for that.
Did a state ever actually change its name after admission?
It appears that no admitted state has ever changed its name "for the sake of it", when no change of territory was also involved. After considerable research, I found find this site: Origin of State Names, which appears to have some credibility, and mentions the North Dakota initiatives, but there is no mention of any name change of any of the other states.
Although in T.E.D.'s excellent answer he cites the examples of Maine and West Virginia, these were not mere name changes, but changes in the borders of pre-existing states that resulted in the creation of new states, which of course required new names.
Is there a federal process for changing a state's name?
At first blush, such a matter would not be a federal process, nor fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government at all: In the body of the US Constitution, there is no reference to the question of changing a state's name, assuming it involves no change to the state's territory:
Changing the name of an already admitted state (specifically the topic of this question), which has no bearing at all on the territory of that state, any other state, or the territory of United States at large, is irrelvant to Article IV, Section 3, which specifically discusses matters impacting territory. So if it's possible at all, it assumedly would be in the province of the States themselves, as per Amendment 10:
The process would normally involve a referendum and an act by the State Legislature and/or amendment to the State's Constitution.
Although the reference to North Dakota indeed cites the Enabling Act of 1889:
If correct, that was because the Enabling Act of 1889 specifically designates the name North Dakota when the state was formed and admitted:
Here are some good references regarding a movement to change the name of Rhode Island that appear to confirm this - it is a decision to be rendered by the state itself:
It appears from these references that this is a matter for the state itself, not the Federal Government, which has no mentioned involvement in the process, and which is in no way impacted by such a change of name, since it does not involve a change of territory.
Regardless, it appears that Rhode Island never did change its official name, as indicated by language of the preamble to the current constitution of the state, posted on RI's official state website:
I found nothing regarding any admitted state actually changing its name, when no territorial changes were also involved.
Could we claim that changing the name of the state without changing its territory, population or mode of government would require readmission to the USA because it has effectively become a new state? No: If such was the case, changing the name of a state would be patently illegal, as it would constitute secession.
There is however, one legal argument that can be made that would require an act of Congress to authorize the changing of any state's name, as follows: Like North Dakota, each state was admitted to the Union with a specific name. Here are two recent examples:
If so, perhaps in addition to action on the state level, as mentioned above, an act of Congress would be required to change the name of a state that was previously admitted under another name, similar to what's mentioned regarding North Dakota. It would be akin to the process involved when an individual changes their birth name to a new name.
I don't believe there is a "Federal process" for this.
By my reading of the Constitution (article 4, section 3), the disposition of US territory is the purview of Congress. So presumably renaming a state for Federal purposes would require an act of Congress.
What has happened multiple times is states being split in two; once for Maine splitting from Massachusetts, and once for West Virgina from Virginia. In both cases, Congress had to produce a law to make it legal. The constitution in this case also requres assent of the state legislature (which was done in both cases, although in the latter it required a bit of legal trickery, as the state in question had secceeded from the union).