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A brief account of how Minnesota got its current count of counties

It’s a popular stunt for a politician who’s running or holds office statewide to visit every county in his or her state.

That’s easy in some states where there aren’t that many counties, but it’s kind of tough in Minnesota. Two years ago, Gov. Mark Dayton failed an attempt to visit every one of Minnesota’s 87 counties in 86 days. According to the governor himself, stuff kept popping up, throwing off what must have been a tightly-planned schedule: four score and seven counties.

A reasonable Minnesotan, or a weary politician, might ask: Why so many counties? Strap in, dear reader, for answers to that question and more in this very brief history of Minnesota’s counties.

Have we always had 87 counties in Minnesota?

Nope. When parts of what’s now Minnesota were part of Wisconsin territory county, they were part of a large county called St. Croix. When Minnesota became its own territory, residents clambered for more counties. After all, critical functions of government, like courts, were centered in county seats and traveling long distances was no easy task in the nineteenth century.

Soon, the territory had several counties on its eastern side, and others that formed bands across, which at that time included parts of present-day North and South Dakota.

A 1851 map of Minnesota Territory courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
A 1851 map of Minnesota Territory courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Look closely at some of these maps and you’ll notice quite a few counties that no longer exist. Toombs County, on the state’s western border didn’t survive under that appellation long once its namesake, a U.S. senator, turned out to be a Confederate, said David Lanegran, a geography professor emeritus at Macalester College. It was renamed Andy Johnson County, after President Andrew Johnson, and finally renamed Wilkin, after a territorial secretary who died fighting as a Union soldier in the Civil War.

A 1854 map of Minnesota courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
An 1854 map of Minnesota courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Other county names you won’t find on the map anymore? Monongalia, Mahkato, Wahnahta, Doty, Davis, Pierce, Newton, Big Sioux, Buchanan and Pembina (check out this colossus in the northwest corner of the state in the maps above), among them. Perhaps the state’s most ephemeral county was Doty, which existed for less than a month near Duluth. Despite its short tenure, it nonetheless made it onto at least one map:

A 1857 map of Minnesota courtesy of David Lanegran.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
An 1857 map of Minnesota courtesy of David Lanegran.

(Aside: Most of these maps come from atlases, which were popular among middle-class families — even sold by subscription — in Minnesota’s early days. At that time, people’s thirst for information about the expanding country was insatiable, Lanegran said, so they were updated frequently.)

Minnesota became a state in 1858, and counties changed boundaries and names often for a few decades thereafter.

Detailed online maps of different iterations of counties can be found at the website of the Newberry Library.

A 1860 map of Minnesota courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
An 1860 map of Minnesota courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
Who decides where the county lines should be drawn?

The Legislature has that power. Per the state’s 1857 Constitution:

The Legislature may from time to time, establish and organize new counties but no new county shall contain less than four hundred square miles; nor shall any county be reduced below that amount; and all laws changing county lines in counties already organized, or for removing county seats shall, before taking effect be submitted to the electors of the County or Counties to be affected thereby at the next general election after the passage thereof and be adopted by a majority of such electors. Counties now established may be enlarged, but not reduced below four hundred (400) square miles.

(The 400 square mile requirement was later removed from the Constitution; four Minnesota counties are less than 400 square miles in area, including the state’s smallest, Ramsey, at around 170 square miles.)

In Minnesota, county lines follow two things: private property lines from the federal survey, which blocked the land out in east-west, north-south lines, and natural boundaries, i.e. waterways, said Roderick Squires, a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota. Lots of Minnesota county boundaries are funky-looking because Minnesota has lots of water.

While creating a new county is a legislative process, changing the boundaries of existing counties requires approval of a majority of residents, according to the modern state Constitution. So in cases where the Legislature split large counties into smaller ones, a vote would be required.

So, why 87?

Minnesota has 87 counties because, as residents moved across the state, they kept petitioning the Legislature to make them new counties.

“Although the state created the counties, it was the local residents who kind of demanded counties,” Squires said. “For example, Brown County, that is now on the western margin, there was a huge county for a long period of time, and then it was slowly broken up as people moved in.”

People wanted to be close to county seats because that’s where the services — the law, the courts, etc. — were. And landowners wanted a county seat in their town because it increased the value of their property.

“You can watch the agricultural settlement move across the state with the formation of the counties,” Lanegran said.

Apparently, Minnesotans are satisfied with 87: Minnesota’s counties have been pretty stable for about a century. None have been created since 1922, when Lake of the Woods was added.

The legislature still has the option of creating more counties, though since doing so would necessitate changing the borders of one or more of the existing counties, a vote of residents would have to be taken.

What are Minnesota’s counties named after?

According to the Association of Minnesota Counties, which compiled the origins of county names from a Minnesota Historical Society source, most Minnesota counties were named for people. Many of them Minnesotans,  like Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey, and others — like Sam Houston and George Washington — not.

Of the majority of counties named for people, by our count, all but one were men, among them white settlers, presidents and American Indian chiefs. They are: Aitkin, Becker, Beltrami, Benton, Brown, Carlton, Carver, Cass, Clay, Cook, Dodge, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, Hubbard, Jackson, Kittson, Le Sueur, Lincoln, Lyon, Marshall, Martin, McLeod, Meeker, Morrison, Mower, Murray, Nicollet, Nobles, Olmsted, Pennington, Polk, Pope, Ramsey, Renville, Rice, Scott, Sherburne, Sibley, Stearns, Steele, Stevens, Swift, Todd, Wabasha, Washington, Wilkin and Wright.

One, Winona, was named after a woman, and an American Indian woman at that.

Many counties were named for physical or residential attributes, whether they were lakes or rivers or a general descriptor: Big Stone, Blue Earth, Chippewa, Chisago, Clearwater, Cottonwood, Crow Wing, Itasca, Kanabec, Lac Qui Parle, Lake, Lake of the Woods, Mille Lacs, Norman, Otter Tail, Pine, Pipestone, Red Lake, Redwood, Rock, Roseau, St. Louis, Traverse, Wadena and Yellow Medicine.

Some counties have American Indian descriptions a little more broad than the previous category or are named after tribes. They include Anoka, Dakota, Isanti, Kandiyohi Koochiching, Mahnomen, Waseca and Watonwan.

Minnesota’s a pretty above-average state; is 87 an above-average number of counties?

Not particularly.

Look at a map of counties across the country, and you’ll probably notice eastern states tend to have a lot more of them. In the West, there are fewer.

That’s a function of population, Squires said.

Considering Minnesota’s total area, roughly 87,000 square miles, 87 counties isn’t a ton, proportionally. For comparison, Rhode Island’s five counties (tied with Hawaii for having the second-least amount of counties of any state, after Delaware, with three) average 309 square miles, and Alaska’s 29 average 23,000 square miles (we’re including county equivalents, here, which include cities that are considered counties for Census purposes, plus Alaska’s boroughs and Louisiana’s parishes).

When it comes to packing people in, Minnesota falls near the middle too, with about 63,000 people per county on average. Of course, the counties vary wildly in population. Hennepin has 1.2 million people. Traverse, Minnesota’s least populous county, has about 3,400.

California’s 58 counties average more than 677,000 people each, while South Dakota’s 66 counties average around 13,000.

Eighty-seven still seems like a lot of counties. Can’t we get rid of a few?

It’s been proposed. Not everyone has always been excited about Minnesota having 87 counties. Former Minneapolis Rep. Phyllis Kahn once floated a plan that would merge Minnesota’s counties into 10 mega-counties.

That didn’t happen, and it’s not likely to at this point, Squires said.

Counties have formed the backbone of how things work in this country. Political units, like legislative seats are often based on them. They administer services. And, besides, with different IT systems, combining them would be a nightmare, Squires said.

The number of counties Minnesota has does present some challenges: for counties, especially those with small tax bases, it can be difficult to cost-effectively provide services, such as corrections and medical examiners or  to a relatively small number of people spread out over many miles. That’s why we see things like Tri-County Community Corrections, which serves Norman, Polk and Red Lake counties, and the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office, which serves many counties.

Maybe, in the internet age, people don’t need to visit their county seat as frequently as they once did. But on the other hand, how far do people want to drive to get a new driver’s license or to court or the hospital? What about seniors or people with certain disabilities, who often rely on county programs but don’t always drive?

Plus, there’s the matter of pride.

“There’s such great pride in the counties — a sense of ownership of the counties,” Squires said.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 06/15/2018 - 11:55 am.

    A great article, Greta, Thank you !

  2. Submitted by Paul John Martin on 06/15/2018 - 01:06 pm.

    Now Lake Calhoun has been renamed …..

    ….. is it too much to hope we can one day rename Ramsey and Sibley Counties? Very controversial, to be sure, but a step towards healing our history.
    From Wikipedia:
    Ramsey declared on September 9, 1862: “The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” He went as far as offering money for scalps of Dakotas.
    Both became very wealthy by defrauding the Native Americans of large parts of the financial settlements they were paid when they signed away their rights to large areas of the state.

    • Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 06/15/2018 - 07:18 pm.

      many more could be renamed…

      Benton – Thomas Hart Benton (Slave Owner)

      Brown – Joseph R. (Aide to Sibley and commandant of Mankato prison during 1862 War)

      Cass – Lewis (Central figure in the Indian removal policy under Andrew Jackson)

      Dodge – Henry (Slave owner, warred against Indians in the Black Hawk War)

      Fillmore – Millard (Enforced the Fugitive Slave Act)

      Lincoln – Abraham (Signed order to execute the 38 Indians at Mankato)

      Lyon – Nathaniel (Participated in the Bloody Island Massacre of Pomo Indians in CA in 1850)

      Marshall – William (Fought in several battles against the Indians in the 1862 War)

      Polk – James K. (Slave Owner; Imperialist)

      Scott – Winfield (Fought in several wars against the Indians; instrumental in the Cherokee Removal)

      Washington – George (Slave Owner)

      • Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 01/10/2019 - 07:18 pm.

        Right, and then let’s vote every 10 years to be sure the survivors still meet our capricious standards of political correctness. Do we name one after Humphrey, for his civil rights work, and then take it away because of his support for the Vietnam war?

  3. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 06/15/2018 - 01:29 pm.

    Number of counties

    My bill to reduce the number of counties to 10 was not written at random. The boundaries were suggested to be those of the watershed districts with the argument that these were the boundaries laid down by God at the time of creation and not arbitrarily selected by men

    • Submitted by Wilj Flisch on 06/16/2018 - 03:57 am.

      Out of curiousity..

      Hey there Phyllis, thank you for your service.

      Out of curiosity, since I’d never heard this before, why/how did this particular policy proposal and justification arise?

  4. Submitted by Elly Rittenour on 06/15/2018 - 02:51 pm.

    87 Counties

    Before addressing this issue of reducing the county structure in Minnesota, state residents should consider the inefficiencies and duplication of services within our township structures. It may be less costly to eliminate townships and have representation by one or two elected persons from each township serving at the county level. Involvement of highly populated counties influencing a decision about reducing/eliminating townships is a concern. Good discussion, I’m sure there are more pitfalls.

    • Submitted by Rory Kramer on 06/16/2018 - 06:10 pm.

      Township services vs. County services

      Do you know how many townships any particular county in Minnesota can have? In my county, which is Fillmore County, there are 23 townships-a township being an area that is usually 36 square miles. With your idea, that would mean 46 county “commissioners,” when there are currently 5 county commissioners. The whole “township” concept is grassroots politics at it’s best. In my county, the only overlapping service between what the county and townships offer is road maintenance-grading/gravel replacement/snow-plowing. The township solicits bids from private contractors for those above items as if the road maintenance-especially the snow-plowing in the winter-was left to the county highway department the department would have to hire additional staff and purchase additional equipment to get the roads plowed and cleared in a timely manner. Some townships have chosen to handle zoning issues themselves, which are usually more stringent than what the county requires as to how much land is needed to build a house on or for permitting for a livestock facility so that might be an overlapping service as well.

  5. Submitted by Emory David Dively on 06/15/2018 - 03:04 pm.

    True or false?

    Is the story about the size of the counties (edge to county seat) being equal to a day’s ride on horseback just an old folk tale that doesn’t line up with history?

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/15/2018 - 03:41 pm.

    I’m reluctant

    …to attribute the creation of counties – any counties, or any county boundaries – to a higher power, but I’m otherwise inclined to lean in Ms. Kahn’s direction. We’re more than a century beyond when most Minnesota counties were created. Horse-drawn wagons and other modes of Victorian travel are now curiosities, not necessities. Virtually everything else has changed in those intervening decades, why should the number of counties and their boundaries be immune to change over time?

    Counties without enough residents or tax base to provide services to their residents have no reason to exist beyond local prejudices. My former home of Missouri has half a million more people than Minnesota, about 20% smaller land area, and about 25% more (114, plus the “independent city” of St. Louis, so 115 in practice, to 87 in Minnesota) counties. In my other former home, Colorado’s population is nearly identical to Minnesota’s, with 17% more land area, yet only 64 counties. There’s no logic or consistency – or even a recognizable system – to how local governmental units are organized in the U.S.

    • Submitted by tim johnson on 06/16/2018 - 05:17 am.

      Counting counties

      good, fun article. Thanks for it.

      As to this reader’s comment: “There’s no logic or consistency – or even a recognizable system – to how local governmental units are organized in the U.S..”

      Logic and consistency are hallmarks more of hell than heaven.

      “Gee, Harold. Was it good for you? Seemed there was a lack of logic or consistency there.”

      In love, homemaking, gardening, children, games, rivers and lakes, trees, music, friendship, and democracy, logic and consistency consistently make no sense and are not welcome.
      The nazis were into logic and consistency and their trains ran on time, to ends of horror.
      Let’s rejoice in the harum-scarum, quilty, variegated beauty of our home-grown counties and not dream nightmares of making them all full of logic and consistency.
      I would never say it, but some might: The image concocted by the idea of a planner ‘sconced in metro areas drawing up new patterns for hoi polloi out there is that of a bloated spider spinning and weaving across a sunlit barnstable aiming to consume in the darkness.

  7. Submitted by Warren Park on 06/15/2018 - 05:19 pm.

    Proposed County Split in 2000

    No mention of the last attempt to split a county. The 2000 election in Pine County had a proposal to split Pine County into Pine and Pioneer Counties – basically into a northern and southern half. Press reports of voter turnout exceeding 90% with 1 in 5 in favor of the split. No where near enough support to split the county and we still enjoy the full size Pine County, Minnesota today.

  8. Submitted by Waldon Petersen on 06/17/2018 - 11:47 am.

    Two Counties With Same Name On1860 Map

    Can you find them? Hint: Check counties starting with “B” in the Southwestern part of MN.

  9. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/17/2018 - 05:57 pm.

    This article got me thinking about how division into 87 counties is, or is not, unfair to the average Minnesotan, in terms of equal distribution of benefits of government, and equal rights of each citizen to have a voice in decision-making.

    It seems to me that counties really don’t have that big an impact on equality of representation; it doesn’t realy matter much how many or how few people live in each one. It’s the state legislative districts and U.S. House of Representative Districts that are gerrymandered to skew representation and create huge inequalities. That’s where our concerns must center. Our counties are fine, and reek with history. Let’s save that.

    • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 06/18/2018 - 11:09 am.

      Agreed, with one addition. Often state constitutions or redistricting bylaws state that counties need to be kept whole or an attempt at keeping them whole must be made. This task is easy for Rock County but not so much for Hennepin County.

  10. Submitted by Chris Steller on 06/18/2018 - 01:56 pm.

    Manomin County

    Also worth a mention is Manomin County (different from present-day Mahnomen County), which during its brief existence was the smallest county in the United States.

    • Submitted by Chris Steller on 06/18/2018 - 03:13 pm.

      Manomin County is on the 1860 map

      I just noticed that Manomin County is on the 1860 map. Just west of Ramsey County and south of Anoka County. So small they had to put in a line break, so it reads as:


  11. Submitted by Thomas Kalbrener on 12/25/2018 - 05:19 pm.

    Ms Kaul,

    Wonderful summary of County development. Grew up in Carlton Cty (cloquet}. BA UofM 1961 Geog. Great Great Uncle was Charles W Christmas, The surveyor Who laid out the City o f Minneapolis for Chas Stevens prior to 1864 when township and range ruled. Lots to learn.

    Tom Kalbrener
    Napa CA

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