More Presidential County Sorting

On June 28, 2015 · 2 Comments

I found one surprising benefit to the tedious research that went into the recent Last Presidential Counties article: I could sort through the data differently and come up with several unexpected yet equally fascinating facts. It produced enough material for a second article. Don’t think of these as leftovers though. They stood on their own.

Early Achievers

Old Capitol Building in Corydon
Old Capitol Building in Corydon by StevenW., on Flickr (cc)

I expected that most counties would be designated in fairly close proximity to a president’s term in office, and that was the case generally. However I began to see that a noticeable number of counties were designated for their namesakes even before they served as president. That began to make sense as I thought about it a little more and began checking individual county histories. Consider that anyone who had the ability to became president of a nation — any nation — must have possessed extreme ambitions. These men didn’t simply drop out of the sky and land in the Oval Office without any effort on their part. The United States wasn’t a kingdom and nobody inherited this position. No, they were all governors or congressmen or generals or diplomats, or they filled various other prestigious positions, oftentimes multiple positions. Their efforts sometimes rose to a level of prominence that compelled states to name counties in their honor long before they served as president.

William Henry Harrison became the earliest achiever. Harrison County, Indiana was named for him a full 33 years before his presidential administration began. He’d already been a delegate to Congress representing the Northwest Territory before Andrew Jackson appointed him to become the first Governor of the the Indiana Territory in 1800. The territory was huge, encompassing all of current Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. Indiana established Harrison County in 1808 including land that Harrison owned, and established its capital there in the town of Corydon (map) where it would remain until moving to Indianapolis in the 1820’s.

Harrison then reinvented himself as a military leader and moved to Ohio. He defeated Native American forces led by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Then he defeated British forces at the Battle of the Thames in the War of 1812 (albeit the battle itself happened the following year). That prompted Ohio to designate a Harrison County in 1813, this one established 28 years before Harrison became president. He served in Congress representing Ohio and then as a diplomat before retiring somewhere around 1829. Harrison had already experienced enough adventure for several careers when he was persuaded to run for president in 1836 (he lost) and again in 1840 (he won). Then he caught pneumonia and died after serving in office for only about a month. He probably should have quit while he was still ahead.

Andrew Jackson tied for second place. Jackson County, Tennessee was named 28 years before Jackson became president.

Staying Power

Some presidents became greater icons than others. Many of the presidents who led the struggle for independence still had counties named for them several decades after they left public office. It should come as no surprise that John Adams and George Washington fared particularly well, with counties named for them 110 years after they served: Adams County, Idaho and Washington County, Oklahoma.

Adams County, Idaho


There wasn’t much to know about Adams County, Idaho in a rural part of the state with fewer than four thousand residents. It did serve as the home of the increasingly rare Northern Idaho Ground Squirrel (Urocitellus brunneus brunneus)

Very small range in west-central Idaho; declined from about 5000+ individuals in 1985 to only 450-500 individuals in 23 sub-populations in 2002; most (20) subpopulations comprise fewer than 50 individuals. Threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation as a result of forest encroachment into meadows, agricultural conversion, road construction, and residential and golf course development, and also by competition with Columbian ground squirrel and some shooting.

It also provided a home for Brundage Mountain ski resort (map) in the Payette National Forest.

Washington County, Oklahoma

Price Tower, Bartlesville
Price Tower, Bartlesville by baraqatax, on Flickr (cc)

Washington County, Oklahoma was considerably better know with its county seat at Bartlesville. Washington was a funny little county, long and skinny and the smallest in the state with only 424 square miles (1,098 square kilometres) of territory. While Bartlesville wasn’t the largest city in Oklahoma — it had only about 35 thousand residents — it played an oversized role in the oil and gas industry that was so important to the state economy. The Phillips Petroleum Company was founded there in 1905. It later merged with Conoco to become ConocoPhillips and then split to become Phillips 66 and ConocoPhillips in 2012. Both companies continue to retain a major presence in Bartlesville although now headquartered elsewhere.

Bartlesville was also notable for Price Tower (map), now known as the Price Tower Arts Center. It was designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, one of only two buildings he created in a vertical alignment.

In Wright’s design for a tower, he combined cantilevered floors with what is called "taproot" design. Borrowing from nature, Wright understood that a building’s floors and outer walls could be held aloft in the same way that a tree raises it branches and leaves – with a trunk-anchored in place by a deep, central foundation, or "taproot". The tower’s trunk consists of an inner concrete and steel core – actually four of them – that also serve as the elevator shafts. Cantilevered out from this central core are the tower’s 19 floors.

Thomas Jefferson also had two counties named for him more than a century after he left office: Jefferson County, Oregon (105 years later) and Jefferson County, Idaho (104 years later). While Adams and Washington had slightly later counties named in their honor, Jefferson deserved special mention for two counties nearly at the top. It’s unlikely that other presidents will join the century list unless the United States colonizes the moon or Mars or something. Even so, there probably won’t ever be a Nixon County.

Most Presidential State

I continued to sort and noticed that some states had more counties named for presidents than others. Nebraska took top honors with twelve presidential counties: Adams, Arthur, Fillmore, Garfield, Grant, Hayes, Jefferson Lincoln, Madison, Pierce, Polk, and Washington. Iowa came in a close second with eleven and Arkansas followed just below with ten.

Last Presidential Counties

On June 24, 2015 · 5 Comments

Reader Steve Spivey contacted Twelve Mile Circle and floated an idea about U.S. counties named for presidents. He’d traveled through Taylor County in Georgia and recalled a Taylor County in Florida. Could they be related? Well yes, they were named for the 12th President of the United States, Zachary Taylor. That led him to wonder which president might be the most recent leader to have a county named in his honor. In one of 12MC’s odder coincidences — and we’ve had several over the years — I had been considering almost exactly the same thought at the same time. We’d both discovered Wikipedia’s wonderful List of U.S. counties named after U.S. Presidents and noticed Harding County, New Mexico named for 29th U.S. President Warren G. Harding in 1921. Were there others named after 1921 for earlier presidents though?

I’m almost ashamed to admit that our conversation took place all the way back in October 2014. Only now did I finally get around to the tedious task of cataloging every county named for a president, recording each one on a spreadsheet and figuring out the answer. It wasn’t the absolutely most difficult effort ever undertaken by 12MC although it came close. I’m sure I’ve gone through more trouble finding a single simple answer before even if not recently. After all that effort I learned… the last county named for a U.S. president, any president, was Harding County, New Mexico in 1921. So now we know.

Harding County, New Mexico

Mosquero's Main Street Businesses
Mosquero's Main Street Businesses by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)

Harding County might be the perfect jurisdiction bearing that description. The county was established and named for Harding on the date of his presidential inauguration, March 4, 1921. He was dead two years later, felled suddenly by a cerebral hemorrhage while on an official trip to San Francisco (see my Presidential Death Locations). Harding’s brief administration was marked by scandals, cronyism and general ineffectiveness. Historians have ranked him consistently as one of the worst U.S. presidents of all time.

I don’t mean to imply that Harding County is a terrible place like its terrible namesake. Rather, I figured if one were to name a county for Harding it might be best to choose an overlooked, out-of-the way place where it would minimize embarrassment. Only 695 people lived in Harding County during the 2010 Census, the smallest county population in New Mexico. That made it one of the counties with more land than people (2,126 square miles). It’s county seat at Mosquero (map) tallied only 120 residents. Many more people used to live in Harding County, upwards of 5,000 on its abundant cattle ranches, however most residents left in the 1930’s when the Dust Bowl environmental disaster struck. The county never recovered.

Then I took looked at the next presidential counties on the list. They were both established in Montana in 1919.

Garfield County, Montana

T Rex
T Rex by Stu Rapley, on Flickr (cc)

James Garfield left his name on several counties throughout the United States. He was president for less than a year, serving from March through September 1881. He was shot by an assassin and suffered horribly for several weeks before succumbing to a fatal infection. I guess people felt sorry for him because he had a lot more counties named for him than many of his contemporaries. The last one was Garfield County, Montana named almost 40 years after his death.

The first Tyrannosaurus rex fossil was found in the Hell Creek Formation (map) near the town of Jordan in 1902. The specimen is now part of a composite on exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. That fossil-rich area later became part of Garfield County upon its establishment. Hell Creek quickly became known for its abundant Cretaceous period dinosaur fossils. Paleontologists still hunt there today and continue to uncover remarkable specimens. Otherwise Garfield probably wouldn’t attract much notice because it’s another example of a county with more land (4,847 sq mi) than people (population 1,206).

Roosevelt County, Montana

Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede by billrdio, on Flickr (cc)

Theodore Roosevelt spent a lot of time on the frontier and had something of a Wild West reputation. He deserved to have some counties out that way named in his honor. New Mexico and Montana obliged. The Roosevelt County in Montana pertained to this analysis, having been established in 1919, the same year that Roosevelt died. I’m sure Teddy would have been gratified to know that the biggest event in Roosevelt County was the Wolf Point’s Wild Horse Stampede, begun even before it became a separate county:

Wolf Point’s famous "Wild Horse" Stampede, referred to also as the "granddaddy" of Montana rodeo has been held the second weekend in July since 1915, making it Montana’s oldest rodeo. Professional rodeo cowboys say it’s the best, and consistently, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association ranks it number one in cowboy winnings, rodeo stock, hospitality and organization. It’s the Montana rodeo other seeks to emulate.

The event is held in Wolf Point (map), the county seat.

The Rest of the Twentieth Century

Fifteen more counties established in the Twentieth Century were also named for U.S. presidents.

  • Grant County, North Dakota 1916
  • Jackson County, South Dakota 1915
  • Jefferson County, Oregon 1914
  • Jefferson County, Idaho 1913
  • Madison County, Idaho 1913
  • Arthur County, Nebraska 1913
  • Adams County, Idaho 1911
  • Lincoln County, Wyoming 1911
  • Jackson County, Colorado 1909
  • Lincoln County, Montana 1909
  • Grant County, Washington 1909
  • Jefferson County, Oklahoma 1907
  • Washington County, Oklahoma 1907
  • Roosevelt County, New Mexico 1903
  • McKinley County, New Mexico 1901

They are an unusual breed considering that there were 203 presidential counties.

It’s Not Always About Abe

On June 14, 2015 · 1 Comments

In the United States, twenty-three states have a Lincoln County (or Parish in the case of Louisiana). That’s nearly half. That’s also to be expected. Certainly a man who led the nation through a traumatic civil war and who died tragically at the hand of an assassin deserved to be honored with numerous place named for him. Geographic features called Lincoln spread far-and-wide. It even took root in the Wild West in places like Lincoln County, New Mexico (map) and by extension to the name of a war — the "Lincoln County War" (more of a feud actually) — involving unlikely characters such as Billy the Kid. However some counties of Lincoln weren’t what they seemed on the surface. Some of them weren’t named for Abraham Lincoln at all.

Several southern states had Lincoln Counties. One might be tempted to conclude that each of them established a county named for their former foe as a sign of reconciliation during the Reconstruction Era. That wasn’t the case. Those Lincoln Counties predated the term of President Lincoln by decades: North Carolina (1779); Kentucky (1780); Georgia (1796); and Tennessee (1809). That was also true for one border state, Missouri (1818).

General Benjamin Lincoln-restored.jpg
General Benjamin Lincoln-restored” by Charles Willson PealeFile:Benjamin lincoln by charles wilson peale.jpg.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

They were all named for Benjamin Lincoln (1733-1810). One would be excused for not being familiar with Benjamin Lincoln, so completely overshadowed by Abraham Lincoln. It was unfortunate that someone who contributed to the birth of a nation languished in obscurity at least in part because of the unlikely chance that someone else with the same surname became an icon of history. The reflex action in the United States was to think of Abraham automatically upon hearing the single word Lincoln. Sorry Benjamin. He and Abe weren’t even related.

181 North Street
181 North Street by Timothy Valentine, on Flickr (cc)

Benjamin Lincoln already had a promising career in the years leading up to the American Revolution. He lived in Hingham, Massachusetts where he held various minor political offices and participated in local militias. He found himself overseeing supplies and operations for Massachusetts militias as the Revolution broke out and then helped to supply the new Continental Army. Later he became a Major General and led troops in several battles. As George Washington’s second in command at the Battle of Yorktown, he formally accepted the British surrender. He became the first Secretary of War under the new U.S. government formed by the Articles of Confederation and then later served as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. Clearly he earned a level of credibility significant enough to get a few counties in growing states named in his honor.

Abraham Lincoln’s home became a national historic site. In fact, numerous places associated with Abe became parks and monuments, drawing visitors from around the world. That wasn’t the case with Benjamin although his old home still stands in Hingham (map). It didn’t become a park, it remained a private residence. Amazingly, it continues to be owned by the same family, having been passed down through successive generations since Thomas Lincoln settled there in the 1630’s. Its nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places noted (1972) that "The house is furnished with the original Lincoln furniture and contains many of the General’s personal items."

Another Lincoln

Lincoln Cathedral
Lincoln Cathedral by Brian, on Flickr (cc)

This might be about the time that 12MC readers in the United Kingdom start wondering about the Lincoln in England’s East Midlands, the county town of Lincolnshire. That city had an impact on a couple of U.S. counties too, one directly and another indirectly. Lincoln County, Maine originated in 1760. It commemorated the birthplace of Thomas Pownall, governor of Massachusetts — Maine was part of Massachusetts at the time. Lincoln County, South Dakota was established in 1867. That would seem to make it a perfect candidate for a connection to Abraham Lincoln who died only a couple of years earlier. However it was actually named for Lincoln County, Maine, which is where W.W. Brookings, a member of the territorial legislature was born. How odd that both counties were named for birthplaces.

I’d still venture to guess that the then-recent death of Abraham Lincoln had at least a subtle influence on the name of Lincoln County, South Dakota.

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