In 1989 there was an initiative in North Dakota to change the state's name to simply "Dakota". Is this the 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?

  • See important new edits.
    – user2590
    Sep 19, 2013 at 4:16
  • @Lennart: Part law, Part history. I was unable to find a more appropriate stackexchange site for this. If this needs to get migrated, please feel free.
    – Scott
    Sep 19, 2013 at 15:02
  • Doesn't politics.SE fit? No big deal anyway. Sep 19, 2013 at 15:12
  • @Lennart You're right. Politics is a better fit. Please migrate.
    – Scott
    Sep 19, 2013 at 17:01
  • 1
    @Scott - see my comment. No, politics is not a better fit. The bulk of the question concerns history.
    – user2590
    Sep 19, 2013 at 18:12

3 Answers 3


Is this first time an initiative was taken for a state to change its name after becoming a state within the Union.?

No, 1989 was not the first time. In 1947 a similar resolution was proposed and defeated in North Dakota. See below Origin of State Names Also see Somewhere in America:

At least four times since the end of the Second World War - 1947, 1983, 1989 and 2001 - the name change debate has made headlines.

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:

An attempt to drop the word North from the state name was defeated by the 1947 Legislative Assembly. Again in 1989 the Legislature rejected two resolutions intended to rename the state Dakota.

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.

There have been attempts made to change the state name by dropping the "North" and renaming the state simply "Dakota," but these resolutions were defeated in 1947 and again in 1989.

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:

Article IV, Section 3:

New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

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:

Amendment X:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

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:

In order to legalize the proposal, officials would have to alter the state constitution and the federal Enabling Act

If correct, that was because the Enabling Act of 1889 specifically designates the name North Dakota when the state was formed and admitted:

Enabling Act of 1889:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Un ited States of America in Congress assembled That the inhabitants all that part of the area of the United States now constituting the of Dakota Montana and Washington as at present described may become the States of North Dakota, South Dakota Montana, and Washington respectively as hereinafter provided.

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:

Rhode Island Weighs Using Shorter Official Name

After years of defending the state’s name, the State Senate and House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly last week to allow a referendum asking voters whether to shorten it by seven syllables, to State of Rhode Island. On Tuesday the Senate could adopt the House’s bill, paving the way for the referendum.

Rhode Island Closer to Changing State Name Over Slavery

The country’s smallest state has the longest official name: “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

A push to drop “Providence Plantations” from that name advanced farther than ever on Thursday when House lawmakers voted 70-3 to let residents decide whether their home should simply be called the “State of Rhode Island.” It’s an encouraging sign for those who believe the formal name conjures up images of slavery, while opponents argue it’s an unnecessary rewriting of history that ignores Rhode Island’s tradition of religious liberty and tolerance.

The bill permitting a statewide referendum on the issue next year now heads to the state Senate.

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:

WE, the people of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations...

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:

An Act to provide for the admission of the State of Alaska Into the Union:

The State of Alaska is hereby declared to be a State of the United States of America, is declared admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the other States in all respects whatever...

An Act to Provide for the Admission of the State of Hawaii into the Union:

The State of Hawaii is hereby declared to be a State of the United States of America, is declared admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the other States in all respects whatever...

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.

  • 1
    Interesting argument. I'm not sure I agree, but I could see where someone might go to the courts with such an argument. What would they decide? Tough to know. I don't see how it could possibly come up unless the Federal Government decided to change a state's name against its wishes, which seems highly unlikely to me.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 18, 2013 at 17:50
  • @T.E.D. - There is a possible argument to be made, but it is not relevant to Article IV, Section 3: See my edit: "There is however, one legal argument..", similar to what appears to have been required regarding ND.
    – user2590
    Sep 18, 2013 at 20:35
  • @T.E.D. - See new edit of my answer... "I could see where someone might go to the courts with such an argument". No individual would have standing to present such a case. Presumably it would be a matter between the state and the Federal Government if there was contention on the issue, such as the Feds objecting to the name change in spite of actions on the part of the state to do so.
    – user2590
    Sep 19, 2013 at 4:32
  • about Rhode Island: even if you change the name, I'm not sure you would change the original constitution, as it's History. You probably would write a new constitution but not alter the document. It would still be available. new constitution: "We, the people of this State which state shall henceforth be known as the state of Rhode Island"
    – OldPadawan
    Feb 12 at 12:08

We have a definite answer for this now. Rhode Island has officially changed its name as of 2020. It did not involve the federal government and took only a state ballot measure.


So state are free to change their own name subject to states internal laws.

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    Good catch. As anybody ever call Rhode Island by its full name though?
    – OldPadawan
    Feb 12 at 3:50
  • Absolutely thrilled when we get a new answer because more History has happened since the question was asked
    – SPavel
    Feb 12 at 14:43
  • 53.1% voted yes to a 2020 referendum question to change "the official name of the State from 'State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations' to 'State of Rhode Island'" (Ballotpedia, Wikipedia)
    – user103496
    Feb 14 at 4:23

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).

  • -1: The references are indeed interesting, but I have to downvote this answer: Disposition of territory is irrelevant to changing the name of the self-same territory. In your cases, a new state was created that decreased the territory of an existing state, a matter directly addressed in Article IV, Section 3. A mere change of name is not the point of Article IV, Section 3. It discusses questions about the territory of the USA. Maine and WV had new names because they were new states derived from pre-existing states. There was no change of name simply for the sake of it. See my answer.
    – user2590
    Sep 18, 2013 at 21:28
  • Maine was not a state when it split from Mass. The rights to Maine (and other territories claimed by all states) were ceded to the Federal government - I think even under the Articles of Confederation, but certainly when the Constitution was ratified.
    – Oldcat
    Jun 18, 2014 at 17:49
  • When talking about making a part of a state into another state, one should not omit Kentucky, which was a part of Virginia until it became a separate state in June 1792. The Virginia legislature consented to that while the Articles of Confederation were still in effect, but the Confederation Congress's deliberations on the matter were interrupted by a notification that New Hampshire had become the ninth state to ratify the new Constitution, so they decided to defer the matter until the new Congress under the Constitution convened. Mar 12, 2017 at 19:38
  • . . . . . and there was also the disputed case of Vermont. New York asserted a disputed claim to Vermont, which was under a government that refused to recognize that claim, and Vermont was not admitted until the legislature of New York passed an act, in 1790, consenting that "the community now actually independent jurisdiction as the State of Vermont" should be admitted as a new state. Mar 12, 2017 at 19:40

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