Q. My son and I are curious how counties came about. Do all states have counties? Are most named after presidents? How many other Madison and St. Clair counties are there? Are there any new counties being created? I know about the bridges in Madison County, Iowa, but are there other noteworthy counties?
— W.N.C. , of Fort Russell
A. Long before the United States even became a dream of our founding fathers, rulers in Virginia already were having problems.
In trying to deal with all the day-to-day headaches throughout the large colony, those in power were experiencing administrative overload. So, they did what any good organization would do: They delegated. Way back in 1617, they split the colony into four “incorporations” and later into eight “shires” — or counties — to share the work and bring colonial government closer to the settlers. As a result, the folks in Eastville, Va., now say they boast the nation’s oldest continuous county court records, dating back to 1632.
Well, other colonies apparently thought Virginia was onto something, so they quickly followed suit. Maryland established its first county, St. Mary’s, in 1637, and Massachusetts did the same in 1643. It wasn’t long until Pennsylvania and New York also delegated a significant share of power to county government as well.
Today, there are arguably 3,143 county or county equivalents throughout the country. That deserves a little explanation. In 48 states, they’re known as counties — from the 254 in Texas to the three in Delaware. (Illinois has 102.) Louisiana, however, has 64 “parishes.” But Alaska really stands alone: They have 19 so-called “organized boroughs” but also one “unorganized borough,” which actually makes up more than half of Alaska’s total land area. So Alaska is the only state not completely divided into county or county equivalents. The final total: 3,007 counties, 64 parishes, 19 boroughs, 11 census areas, 41 independent cities (like St. Louis) and the District of Columbia.
The largest county in the lower 48 is San Bernardino in California with a total area of 20,105 square miles. However, 11 of Alaska’s boroughs are even larger, topped by the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area with an area of nearly 148,000 square miles. Technically, the smallest is Kalawao County in Hawaii at just over 13 square miles, but it has severely restricted access and eventually may lose its tiny population entirely.
In terms of population, nobody beats Los Angeles County, which had just under an estimated 10 million residents in 2010, followed by Illinois’ own Cook County with 5.2 million. In contrast, Loving County in Texas was home to just 95 people in 2013. And, according to a report in Time magazine last summer, the richest county is Teton County (Jackson Hole), Wyoming, where families can enjoy the wide open spaces with an average income of $296,778. Two counties in Texas — Sterling and McMullen — also top the $200,000 mark, according to the IRS data.
As far as the most popular name, you’re absolutely right: The father of our country wins hands down. There are 31 states with a Washington County, including, of course, Illinois. There are also 27 Jeffersons, 24 Franklins, Jacksons and Lincolns and 20 Madisons, along with 18 Clays, Montgomerys and Unions and 17 Marions and Monroes to round out the top 11. St. Clair County is found in only three other states (Missouri, Michigan and Alabama) while there are nine Clintons and eight Randolphs. But the folks in Greenville can hold their heads high — they live in the nation’s only Bond County, which was formed out of Madison County in 1817 and named for Illinois’ first governor, Shadrach Bond.
Most noteworthy or interesting names? How about Dade in Florida or Orange and Los Angeles in California? With 3,143 county equivalents to choose from, that would be a tough call. After all, even the 60 most popular names (there are seven Pulaskis, by the way) are used by only 726 counties, fewer than a fourth of the total.
Others run the gamut. Alamosa County in Colorado is Spanish for “grove of cottonwood trees.” Allegany/Allegheny County (in five states) probably came from “oolikhana,” a Lenape Native American word meaning “beautiful stream.” Amador County, California, is Spanish for “one who loves” and nobody loved it more than Jose Maria Amador, who in 1848 found gold there. Some names are probably invented, such as Alcona County, Mich., which Henry Rowe Schoolcraft put together from pieces of three Arabic words meaning “the excellent plain.” For hundreds more fascinating stories, you should spend an enjoyable day or two scrolling through Wikipedia’s “List of Common U.S. County Name Etymologies.”
Finally, new counties do emerge, although the last reportedly was in 2001. That’s when the city of Broomfield, Colo., which incorporated in 1961, decided that being split among four counties was too confusing, so it created its own separate Broomfield County, the state’s smallest but 13th most populous county.
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