Living in the Commonwealth for so many years I guess I’m predisposed to notice Virginia being mentioned in out-of-context situations. Such was the case with Virginia City, Montana which I saw while researching presidential counties. It was the seat of local government in Madison County named for James Madison, the fourth U.S. President. Madison had been associated with Virginia for his entire life. How fitting, I thought, that settlers arriving in Madison County named their primary town for the home state of the honoree. Except that wasn’t the case. It was a complete coincidence. However that led me to another string of coincidences, of places named Virginia related to silver and gold.
Virginia City, Montana
I searched for that Virginia/Madison connection and actually found a more interesting story. As noted by the Virginia City Preservation Alliance,
On June 16,  …directors presented the charter to Dr. Gaylord Bissell (who had been elected as Judge of the Fairweather Mining District), the proposed name of the new town was "Varina;" honoring the wife of Jefferson Davis-president of the Confederate States of America. Judge Bissell, a staunch Unionist, declared that there was no way he would approve of a charter which carried this name. One of the charter’s proponents hastened to explain that, inasmuch as Mrs. Davis was the daughter of a prominent New Jersey family, her name actually represented a thoughtful compromise in sectional consciousness. Somewhat mollified-if not totally convinced-Judge Bissell responded by crossing out the proposed name "Varina" and writing in the name of the city as "Virginia."
It was a pretty bold move to try to name a Montana town in honor of the Confederate’s first lady while the Civil War raged on the eastern end of the continent. I’m surprised Judge Bissell even offered Virginia, seeing how it was the home of the Confederate capital of said conflict. Nonetheless Virginia City thrived for awhile as the gold mines prospered, and even served as Montana’s first Territorial Capital. The current population hovers around 200 residents although it has managed to build a thriving tourist industry attracted to the Virginia City and Nevada City Historic District
Virginia City, Nevada
I’ve actually visited Virginia City, Nevada although it was many years ago. A different mineral — silver — attracted miners in the late 1850’s. This was the site of the famous Comstock Lode, with seven million tons of silver extracted in twenty years between 1860 and 1880. It’s the reason Nevada came to be known as "The Silver State."
That was a fine set of statistics although I wanted to see the connection to Virginia. It was tangential. The name derived from James Finney (or Fennimore), "Old Virginny Finney." In 1859 he may or may not have discovered the Six-Mile Canyon portion of the Comstock Lode. There were various competing legends explaining how his name came to be applied to the town. My favorite version involved his penchant for public intoxication:
"[O]ne midnight Old Virginia, going home with the boys and a bottle of whiskey," wrote Charles Howard Shinn in The Story of The Mine (1896), "after an unusually protracted revel, fell down when he reached his cabin, broke the bottle, and rising to his knees, with the bottle-neck is his hand, hiccoughed, ‘I baptize this ground Virginia Town!’"
He was a native of Virginia — thus the connection — and "probably Nevada’s oldest pioneer settler" as well as a "frontier hunter, and miner, a man of more than ordinary ability in his class, a buffoon and practical joker; a hard drinker when he could get the liquor, and an indifferent worker at anything." He died in 1861 after being thrown from a horse while intoxicated.
Virginia, Free State, South Africa
Virginia, Free State, South Africa
It was hard to follow-up a story like that although Virginia in South Africa’s Free State province deserved a special mention because of its sheer distance from its namesake. This Virginia was,
…named after the state in America by Louis Seymour, a mechanical and mining engineer who scratched the name of his birthplace on a boulder close to where a railway siding was subsequently built… Years later, after the discovery of gold in 1955 the emergence of a town took on the name of the railway siding. Life here revolves around the gold fields… Virginia’s claim to fame is it pipe-mine, the deepest on the planet, whilst the manufacture of sulfuric acid from gold ore and the mining of gold are what drives the town’s economy.
I’ve seen neither gold nor silver in my little corner of Virginia, although these colorful stories almost make me want to pull out a shovel and start digging in my back yard.
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 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 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.
At the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, right up next to Canada and Montana sits a county with a curious name, Divide. It looked somewhat rectangular like many other counties on the sparsely-populated Great Plains where few natural features could take the place of arbitrary straight lines.
Canadian-US Boundary by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr (cc)
I’d encountered Divide County vicariously one time before without even realizing it as I researched infrequent border crossings between the United States and Canada a couple of years ago. The Noonan border station in Divide County was so lonely and isolated that it had only a single pedestrian crossing during 2011 (the most current data available at the time), although it also had motor vehicle crossings of course. This photo was actually another nearby crossing in Divide — I couldn’t fine one of Noonan — although notice the obelisk marker placed by the International Boundary Commission. I don’t know where I’m going with that. I simply liked the image and it probably looked a lot like the one at Noonan so feel free to use your imagination.
The international border probably wasn’t the divide that inspired a county’s name however, in spite of modern theories like that described by Dakota Datebook in 2007:
This time a name for the new county would be determined through a contest. The winning entry came from George Gilmore, a Williston attorney. Gilmore proposed the name Divide County. The Northern Continental Divide runs through the region. The county divides the United States from Canada. It divides North Dakota from Montana. And most importantly, the new county was a product of its division.
Divide County Courthouse by jeremiah.andrick, on Flickr (cc)
The part about the contest was true enough. Both Divide County and the Town of Crosby (the seat of county government) confirmed the story. It happened in 1910. Homesteaders were just then migrating into the area. There were just enough people to warrant a new county, thus dividing Divide from larger Williams County. The contest commenced, Gilmore won $5 for his efforts, and the name stuck. The preponderance of sources I consulted mentioned two divisions as the basis for the name, the divide from Williams County, and the continental divide. The notion of state and international borders inspiring a name were apparently modern contrivances.
Divide County North Dakota
Created Using USGS’s National Map Viewer
The continental divide fascinated me more in this instance so I went into the National Map Viewer and selected the watershed layer. Notice the dark purple line that marked the continental divide. Many people see "continental divide" and think reflexively of the Great Divide that separated west from east, the Pacific drainage area from the Gulf of Mexico. This wasn’t that divide. Rather this was the Laurentian Divide or the Northern Divide that separated water bound for Hudson Bay from that heading down towards the Gulf of Mexico.
Divide County’s northeastern quadrant and its county seat at Crosby fell within the Souris River watershed, which flowed into the Assiniboine River River then to the Red River of the North into Lake Winnipeg, then to the Nelson River and finally into Hudson Bay. Divide’s southeastern quadrant flowed a long distance too albeit with a more familiar set of names, from local tributaries to the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, and then to the Gulf of Mexico.
What about that curious notation on the map? The Brush Lake Closed Basin? Indeed, the western part of Divide County flowed just a few miles farther west and barely crossed the border into Montana before stopping at Brush Lake where it remained. A good 20% of Divide wasn’t part of either side of the continental divide, it fell within an endorheic basin created at the tail-end of the last Ice Age as glaciers gouged the plains.
The buried outwash gravels and the deeper river terrace gravels are very porous and support a controlled groundwater irrigation area, as well as supplying Brush Lake with a continuous flow of water through large springs in the lake. Being in a closed basin, summer evaporation serves as a pump to keep groundwater flowing into the lake. And since evaporation only takes pure water out, the minerals leached from the glacial gravels remain dissolved in the lake and accumulate, giving the lake its distinct color.
Brush Lake, Montana
Maybe we should track down Gilmore’s heirs and ask for the $5 back?