I noticed that the the Wade Hampton Census Area in Alaska became the Kusilvak Census Area in a recent Reader Mailbag article. Alaska’s census areas are a unique construct, designed as a convenient parceling of the Unorganized Borough although they’re considered "county equivalents" by the Federal government for a number of statistical purposes. Still, the renaming was a big deal. Counties (or county equivalents) change names very infrequently.
Longtime reader Scott Surgent replied, "You may have already mentioned this, but another county changed its name as of May 1, 2015: Shannon County, South Dakota, is now Oglala Lakota County." Well no, actually, I hadn’t mentioned it. In fact I wasn’t even aware of it until Scott said something. I must have been asleep at the wheel. Thank you Scott for calling me out!
Let’s go ahead and take a look Oglala Lakota County and explore the reasoning behind the name.
Map of South Dakota highlighting Oglala Lakota County via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain
Shannon County, now Oglala Lakota County, formed near the southwest corner of South Dakota in 1875. The land immediately west, the actual southwestern corner formed into Fall River County. That was significant because Oglala Lakota is one of the very few counties in the United States that does not have a county seat. It’s administrative center is collocated within Fall River County in neighboring Hot Springs. According to the South Dakota Association of County Officials,
Until 1982 Oglala Lakota and Washabaugh County, South Dakota, were the last unorganized counties in the United States. Although it was organized and received a home rule charter that year, Oglala Lakota County… contracts with Fall River County for its Auditor, Treasurer, Director of Equalization, State’s Attorney and Registrar of Deeds.
Technically the Unorganized Borough in Alaska remains unorganized and boroughs are considered analogous to counties so, evidently, we have a situation of semantics going on here. Nonetheless, the larger point remained that Oglala Lakota was and continues to be governed in an unusual manner. It also had the lowest annual per capita income of any county in the United States — only $8,768 — which likely explained some of the peculiarities. It couldn’t afford to provide these services on its own.
Who was Shannon?
Shannon County Line by Jimmy Emerson, DVM (cc)
The name Shannon applied to the county from 1875 to 2015. Nonetheless that didn’t stop residents from selecting a new name in a landslide, capturing 80% of ballots cast in the November 2014 election. The South Dakota Legislature reviewed and endorsed the vote the following Spring and Shannon became Oglala Lakota.
Peter C. Shannon lived in South Dakota for several years in the late Nineteenth Century. He’d been a career politician from Pennsylvania serving in minor positions, a loyal supporter of Abraham Lincoln. President Ulysses Grant rewarded Shannon by appointing him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Dakota Territory. He held the position while counties formed in the Territory so one was named for him. He was a political hack who benefited from lucky timing. Eventually Shannon "fell out of favor with territorial lawyers who successfully blocked his application for reappointment in 1881." He died in San Diego in 1899 from injuries suffered in a carriage accident.
Why Oglala Lakota
The Women of Pine Ridge by Hamner_Fotos (cc)
There were plenty of counties in the United States named for insignificant historical figures and yet their names haven’t been challenged. It would be useful to understand that the Pine Ridge Reservation covers the entirety of the county. Its people belong to the Oglala Lakota Nation. If that wasn’t sufficient justification by itself, Peter Shannon was understood to be someone "who took part in the corrupt and coercive process of carving up the enormous Great Sioux Reservation in the late 19th century." The Rapid City Journal quoted Short Bull, a member of the tribe who explained, "for Oglala Lakota tribal members like himself, Peter Shannon embodied the changes forced upon his people; from governance changes to the introduction of private property ownership."
It seemed like an open-and-shut case. Many Oglala Lakota, the primary inhabitants of the county, viewed Shannon as an oppressor. The name had to go. I’m surprised the vote wasn’t greater than 80%.
Are There Other County Name Changes in the Works?
I don’t know. Hopefully the 12MC audience will speak up if anything seems to be in the works. I did spot a recent (September 2015) article in the State Journal-Register from Springfield, Illinois: Historical society director floats plan for new Illinois county names
[Bill] Furry, the executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, suggests renaming Illinois’ counties. All 102 of them. And he wants the public to participate… "For more than 150 years, they have honored a past that is beyond any living person’s memory," Furry said. "Given that Illinois history is rarely taught in school these days, the names of the counties might as well be written in Latin, or worse, French. Illinois is French, by the way."
To which the Jacksonville Journal-Courier from west-central Illinois responded, Renaming counties a costly, unnecessary rewrite of history; "Even now and then, a good idea comes to light. This is not one of them."
Jacksonville, Illinois, one should note, fell within Morgan County. The county was named for one of those figures who died beyond any living person’s memory: Daniel Morgan, a hero of the Revolutionary War and the suppressor of the Whiskey Rebellion (1791–1794).
Maybe the suggestion hit a little too close to home.