Minnesota: Commentary

Minnesota Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor; Gordon DenBoer, Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Book Digitizing Director; Emily Kelley, Research Associate; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2008

Minnesota land was once part of the national public domain and, as such, was divided for sale according to the federal rectangular survey system. Although some of the earliest county creations and boundary changes in present Minnesota were based principally on river systems and extended arbitrary lines, lawmakers quickly recognized the utility of basing boundaries on the survey system. Thus territorial officials began incorporating range and township lines into county boundary descriptions early in their governance of present Minnesota, and that practice has been continued by subsequent governing bodies. The lines laid down by those early land surveyors are still in use and remain a prominent and important feature of the modern maps used to make this atlas. Given the persistence of the survey lines and their appearance on modern federal maps, plotting county lines based on the land survey is easier and more precise than working with metes and bounds descriptions that depend on ridge lines, river systems, and local landmarks.

A few boundary lines cannot be precisely drawn. Some involve natural features or local landmarks difficult to locate, while a few reflect the vagueness and imprecision of the laws on which they are based. These uncertain boundaries are labeled "estimated line" and "indefinite limit," respectively. Occasionally a boundary line cannot be drawn as described, due to some oversight or error in the legislation or typographical error in the printed statute. The legislature's intent is usually apparent, however, in other provisions of the law in question or in later boundary changes, and in these cases the intent—rather than a rigid interpretation—of the law has been followed.

The Minnesota state constitution of 1857 (still in effect, as amended) stipulates that no new county can be created containing less than 400 square miles and that no existing county can be reduced below that size by boundary changes. The constitution also requires that all boundary changes involving organized counties be approved by the voters of each affected county. An 1893 law required that new counties have at least 2,000 inhabitants (and no existing county could be reduced below that), and in 1913 the legislature required that counties (new and existing) have an assessed property valuation of at least $4,000,000. In 1917 the valuation requirement was dropped to $3,000,000 for counties having between 3,500-6,000 square miles, and that was further reduced to $2,500,000 in 1919.

In 1893 the legislature also provided for local initiative in creating new counties, with no involvement by the legislature. If petitions signed by at least 15% of the legal voters of each of the counties affected by the creation of the proposed county were submitted to the secretary of state, the governor—after validation of the petitions—was to call for a referendum on the question at the next general election. If the voters approved, the governor proclaimed the new county "one of the duly organized counties" of Minnesota. In 1895 the law was amended to require that the petitions be signed by at least 25% of the legal voters, and it stipulated that the voters could vote on only one such proposition at each election. Although the 1893 and 1895 laws dealt specifically with the creation of new counties, the Revised Laws of 1905 extended the provisions to changing the boundaries of existing counties as well. A 1913 amendment to the Revised Laws also required that referenda on creating new counties must pass by a majority vote in the area which is to form the new county—as well as in each of the counties affected.

The 1893 law providing for local initiative in creating counties resulted in a flurry of proposed new counties—many of which failed in referenda and some of which ended up in the courts for adjudication. Hubbard County (1883) was the last county created by the legislature; between 1894 and 1922, eight counties were created by local initiative: Clearwater, Columbia (later nullified by the state supreme court), Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Pennington, Red Lake, and Roseau.

Most of the attempts were to create new counties out of Polk County. In November 1894 all four counties proposed were defeated in referenda: Columbia, Nash, Nelson, and Red Lake. At the next general election, in November 1896, Polk voters voted on six proposals for new counties—some of which had overlapping boundaries. Garfield, Hill, and Nelson were defeated, while Columbia, Mills, and Red Lake each passed on a majority vote. The governor proclaimed Red Lake the sole winner, and the state supreme court upheld that determination. The creation of Columbia County from Polk in November 1902 also ended up in the state supreme court for final resolution. In that election, the proposed counties of Nelson and Star were also approved by Polk voters (Valley was defeated), but the governor proclaimed only Columbia as being created. The court overturned that decision in April 1903, and Columbia thus became extinct. The final attempt to create a new county from Polk was made in November 1908, when the proposed county of Nelson was defeated in a referendum.

In ruling on the referenda of 1896 and 1902, the state supreme court noted in its 1903 opinion that the 1893 law (and amendment of 1895) was "a very difficult statute to construe. It is badly constructed, and far from complete in many respects. It has been before this court more than once...." Red Lake's creation in 1896 was upheld by the court, even though the voters also approved the creation of Columbia and Mills at the same election. In rejecting Columbia and Mills, the court ruled that any Polk County elector could legally sign any non-competing petitions for creation of new counties, that all proposed creations supported by valid petitions must be submitted to the voters, but that only one of the competing propositions could be approved at the same election. Finally, the court asserted that the winning proposal must have a majority of the votes cast on it, as well as a plurality of the votes cast on the propositions with which it was competing. Red Lake met the test; Columbia and Mills did not.

The provisions of the 1893 and 1895 laws were again at issue in 1903 when the state supreme court set aside the creation of Columbia (declared the winner of the 1902 election by the governor). This time, all four proposed counties (Columbia, Nelson, Star, and Valley) covered the same territory of Polk County, and the contest was principally over location of the county seat of the new county. Columbia polled more votes than Nelson and Star at the election on 4 November 1902 (the proposal to create Valley County was defeated), and the governor duly proclaimed the new county of Columbia. In striking down the governor's decision, the court ruled that only one proposition involving the same territory can be voted on at each election, and that the first valid petition presented for creation of a new county has precedence when more than one are filed. In this case, the petition to create Nelson County was filed with the secretary of state on 13 December 1900, whereas the petition for Columbia was filed the next day. The court consequently ruled the election and creation of Columbia invalid. Parenthetically, the court noted that there must be "material and substantial" differences in the territory to be included in each proposed county when more than one appeared on the ballot at the same election.

There were also efforts in 1894 to create one or two new counties in the Nicollet/Renville/Sibley area, although neither proposal was submitted to the voters (and one apparently never went beyond the petition stage). The proposed county of Birch Coulee (or Birch Cooley) was to include eleven or twelve adjoining full and partial townships of western Nicollet, southeastern Renville, and western Sibley, and although the governor called for a referendum on the proposal, the election was never held. A separate petition drive aimed to combine seven townships in eastern and northeastern Renville County with adjoining Sibley townships to form a new county. Both of these efforts were closely related to the spirited contest in early 1894 for location of the Renville county seat (Olivia was chosen in a special election in June 1894).

Many Minnesota counties were created before there was adequate population to support them, and the legislature consequently devised a system of attachments, whereby newly created counties were often attached to existing counties for various purposes. In some cases, the statute creating a county provided for the full organization of the county, including provisions for electing the county commissioners and county officers. At the same time, the new county was often attached to an existing county, usually "for judicial purposes," "for judicial and record purposes," or "for judicial and other purposes." The precise nature of some of these attachments is not always clear, and thus the precise wording of the phrase is included in both the main chronology and individual county chronology in quotation marks.

Many counties were not "organized," i.e., authorized to conduct county business, at creation. In those cases a separate statute was generally enacted to effect the county organization, designated as organized for county purposes in this atlas. There was often a considerable delay between creation of a county and its organization for county purposes; Beltrami County, for example, was created in 1866 but not fully organized for county purposes until 1897. For much of the intervening period it was attached to Becker County "for record and judicial purposes." Seventy-seven of Minnesota's 87 counties were organized for county purposes by statute, either at creation or later; for the 9 counties (Chippewa, Dodge, Goodhue, Lyon, Mille Lacs, Olmstead, Otter Tail, Swift, and Watonwan) for which no "organizing" statute has been found, the county is considered organized for county purposes in this atlas on the date of the first meeting of the county commissioners. Hennepin was fully organized when the U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of Mendota with the Sioux.

Some of the ambiguity in the status of counties was reflected in the state supreme court’s ruling in 1878 concerning the status of big Stone County as an organized county. Big Stone was created in 1862, and in 1873 and 1874 the board of county commissioners (appointed by the governor) proceeded to fill the other county offices which organized counties typically had. The county officers were chosen again in the general elections of 1874 and 1876, and they fully performed the duties of their respective offices. bills to “organize” Big Stone were introduced into the legislature in 1873, 1874,and 1875, but all failed, and thus the county’s status as an organized county was challenged in court. the district court ruled that Big Stone was “for all the purposes” of the relevant statutes an organized county, but the supreme court overturned that decision.

In rejecting Big Stone’s status as an organized county, the supreme court noted that the state constitution (Article XI) “recognizes” a distinction between organized and established counties. The court defined the “establishing” of a county as “the setting apart of certain territory to be in the future organized as a political community, or quasi-corporation for political purposes; and the organizing of a county is the vesting in the people of such territory such corporate rights and powers.” Futher, the court ruled that the state constitution vested the power of establishing and organizing counties “wholly” with the legislature, “and, until some act of the legislature authorizing it, the people of no district have the right to act as an organized county.

n this atlas, twenty-two counties are identified as “fully organized” (for county government and judicial and other purposes) at creation. For the other counties, in the absence of a specific reference to organization or attachment, the reader should assume that each county was unorganized for county government purposes and unattached for judicial and other purposes until stated otherwise. Mille Lacs County, for example, was created (or established) on 23 May 1857 – unorganized and unattached. On 18 March 1858 it was attached to Morrison County “for judicial purposes,” and on 25 February 1860 it was “organized” for county government. However, Mille Lacs was not “fully organized” until it was detached from Morrison on 31 July 1866.

Approximately 100 proposed county creations and boundary changes have been submitted to the voters for approval. Virtually all of these referenda were held at the regular general elections in November. Where there is specific evidence that the referendum passed (or there is a reasonable inference thereof), the date of the referendum is used as the effective date in the text. In cases where it is known that the referendum failed, the referendum is marked as having "failed" and the date of the law authorizing the referendum is used for the entry. Finally, the phrase "change not effected" is used for some proposed boundary changes when it is clear that the boundary did not change, but for which no information about the required referendum has been located.

Although territorial and state officials generally respected Indian rights to the land and often incorporated Indian boundary lines in county boundaries, they routinely extended county lines in present Minnesota to the limits of their jurisdiction. They thus anticipated and encouraged the migration of non-Indian settlers into the region well before the Indian tribes ceded their territory to the government. In this atlas the county boundaries are drawn as described in the laws, with due regard to the Indian boundary lines when they were part of the boundary—but with no recognition of the gradual purchase of Indian lands by territorial, state, and federal governments.