The Largest Smallest US County (population)

If the "Largest Smallest United States County" sounds fleetingly familiar, you are correct. I covered a variant of this a couple of years ago. Count yourself among the small group of 12MC devotees who have been following along and paying attention for quite awhile. I was contacted by reader Ariel who wondered if I’d ever looked into a different angle of this same phenomenon: examining population rather than geographic size. I’d never thought about that before so I enjoyed his suggestions and I will present my findings now.

Let’s make sure we all understand the reference. Consider that every U.S. state has one county with a smallest population. We’ve examined some counties with extremely small populations previously. In Texas the county with the smallest population is Loving, with 82 residents. Which state, however, has a smallest county population that is larger than any other state’s county with the smallest population? We know it’s not going to be Texas which which comes in dead last (alas, not everything is really bigger in Texas) so it has to be a different state.

Anyone care to guess which one anchors the opposite end of the spectrum? Think smaller states in the northeast.

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Delaware wins according to 2010 Census figures. The county in Delaware with the fewest residents is Kent County, the home of a whopping 162,310 people. Take that, Texas! Delaware has a clear advantage, though. It has fewer counties than any other state, only three, cleaved approximately into thirds. Mid-Atlantic rural isn’t anything like Texas rural either, and there aren’t a lot of places for Delaware residents to spread anyway.

The largest smallest U.S. counties by population are:

  • Kent County, Delaware (map): population 162,310
  • Windham County, Connecticut (map): population 118,428
  • Salem County, New Jersey (map): population 66,083
  • Bristol County, Rhode Island (map): population 49,875
  • Coos County, New Hampshire (map): population 33,055

It drops-off quickly from there.

Ariel did well with his educated guess. He figured Kent and Salem, missing only Windham. Good job, Ariel!

Here’s a trivia question that just came to mind as I typed this: Which state is the only state where the capital city is found in its least populated county? Delaware! Dover, the state capital, is located in Kent County. Some quick fact-checking seems to confirm my assertion. Feel free to use that at your next social gathering and see how quickly people find a way to break away from the conversation.

Let’s try this from another dimension. Each state also has a smallest county by size. Using Texas as an example once again, the smallest county by size in Texas is Rockwall County (not Loving County, even though it has the fewest people). If we shuffle that list of fifty again, this time using the smallest county by size for each state, which one has the largest population?

This one is a bit of a "gimme" because it should be pretty obvious.

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Did you guess New York County, also known as the Borough of Manhattan (which is slightly larger than the island of Manhattan)? It’s the smallest county in New York State by size and it has 1,585,873 residents.

The largest populations of smallest counties by state are:

  • New York County, New York (map): population 1,585,873
  • San Francisco County, California (map): population 805,235
  • Multnomah County, Oregon (map): population 735,334
  • Hudson County, New Jersey (map): population 634,266
  • Baltimore City, Maryland (map): population 620,961
  • New Castle County, Delaware (map): population 538,479
  • Ramsey County, Minnesota (map): population 508,640

Once again it begins to drop off fairly quickly after the initial set. Portland caught me off-guard; I never would have guessed that one. The others seemed logical once I saw them on a list.

As an aside, Baltimore City is a bit of an anomaly. It’s not a county and it shouldn’t be confused with Baltimore County which cradles it on three sides. Nonetheless it is considered a "county equivalent" for census purposes so I will keep it on the list. Yes, and some New England states no longer have functioning counties either but I’ll keep them in consideration for the same reason.

We know that in our Texas example, Loving has the smallest population and Rockwall has the smallest size. Are there any states where the same county has both? It doesn’t happen as often as I imagined because cities are often concentrated into small county areas as noted above.

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I found six instances where the smallest population concentrated in the smallest county.

  • Bristol County, Rhode Island (map): population 49,875
  • McCormick County, South Carolina (map): population 10,233
  • Nantucket County, Massachusetts (map): population 10,172
  • Ohio County, Indiana (map): population 6,128
  • Robertson County, Kentucky (map): population 2,282
  • Kalawao County, Hawaii (map): population 90

I then considered sorting these data by population density, but I began to lose interest. Maybe next time.

8 Replies to “The Largest Smallest US County (population)”

  1. Should the City of Washington in the District of Columbia not be in this list with is 600k+ inhabitants? DC used to have multiple counties I believe, but they were all merged into the City of Washington, which happens to coincide with the District of Columbia.

    If you include the territories of the US, you might also find surprising results…

    1. The District of Columbia is unique case. It has a population of 601,723 but it is neither a state nor a county. The U.S. Census Bureau says: "The District of Columbia has no primary administrative divisions; the Census Bureau treats its entire area as the statistical equivalent of both a State and a county." It’s an interesting asterisk to the original article. Thank you for pointing it out.

  2. I’m surprised that Ohio County has the least population of any county in Indiana, as it seems to be within easy commuting distance of Cincinnati.

  3. Interesting that the largest smallest county (Kent, DE) is across the Delaware River from the third largest smallest county (Salem, NJ).

  4. I made it a point to visit Loving County on my road trip last week. I was shocked to find the short drive off the highway into to Mentone littered with truck traffic – for being the smallest populated county and county seat it sure was bustling with activity. Might be some sort of truck/person per capita county record going on there…

    1. I visited Loving county in 2010. It was late morning on a weekday. In the time it took me to take a picture of the county sign at the Pecos river bridge, at least four trucks passed me. A satellite view shows why. The county and neighboring ones are full of oil wells. The trucks service the wells and related equipment. I’m sure the companies and their crews are from out of the county and go there to work.

  5. As best I can tell, the only state where the largest county is also the largest in population AND in population density is Tennessee. Shelby County is home to Memphis, a huge population center, and just barely wins the largest geographic area title from neighboring Fayette County.

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