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County (US)

Also known as:
Parish (Louisiana)
Borough (Alaska)
Category Second-level administrative division
Location States of the United States
Number 3,144 (including 137 county-equivalents)
Populations Greatest: Los Angeles County, California—9,962,789
Least: Loving County, Texas—82
Areas Largest: San Bernardino County, California—20,057 sq mi
Smallest: Kalawao County, Hawaii—12 sq mi
Government County commission, Board of Supervisors (AZ, CA, IA, MS, VA, WI) County council (WA), Commissioners' Court (TX), Board of chosen freeholders (NJ), Fiscal Court (KY) , Police Jury (LA)
County executive, County mayor, County judge, County manager, Sole commissioner
Subdivisions Township

Template:Administrative divisions of the United States

In the United States, a county is a political and geographic subdivision of a state, usually assigned some governmental authority.[1] The term "county" is used in 48 of the 50 U.S. states.[1] The exceptions are Louisiana and Alaska, where the functionally equivalent subdivisions called, respectively, parishes and boroughs. Numerous consolidated city–counties exist throughout the U.S. in which a city has merged with its county to form one unified jurisdiction with the governmental powers of both entities.

The U.S. federal government uses the term "county equivalent" to describe administrative or statistical areas that comparable to counties. Louisiana parishes; the organized boroughs of Alaska; the District of Columbia; and the independent cities of the states of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, and Nevada are equivalent to counties for administrative purposes. Alaska's Unorganized Borough is divided into 11 census areas which are statistically equivalent to counties. As of 2013, the United States has 3,007 counties and 137 county equivalents for a total of 3,144 counties and county equivalents.[2]

The number of counties per state ranges from the 3 counties of Delaware to the 254 counties of Texas.

Counties still have significant governmental functions in all states except Rhode Island and Connecticut. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has removed most government functions from eight of its 14 counties.


Counties were among the earliest units of local government established in the Thirteen Colonies that would become the United States. Virginia created the first counties in order to ease the administrative workload in Jamestown. The House of Burgesses divided the colony first into four "incorporations" in 1617 and finally into eight shires (or counties) in 1634: James City, Henrico, Charles City, Charles River, Warrosquyoake, Accomac, Elizabeth City, and Warwick River.[3] America's oldest intact county court records can be found at Eastville, Virginia, in Northampton (originally Accomac) County, dating to 1632.[4] Maryland established its first county, St. Mary's, in 1637, and Massachusetts followed in 1643. Pennsylvania and New York delegated significant power and responsibility from state government to county governments, and thereby established a pattern for most of the United States, although counties remained relatively weak in New England.[5]

When independence came, "the framers of the Constitution did not provide for local governments. Rather, they left the matter to the states. Subsequently, early state constitutions generally conceptualized county government as an arm of the state." In the twentieth century, the role of local governments strengthened and "counties began providing an ever widening range of services".[6]

The newest county in the United States is the City and County of Broomfield, Colorado, established in 2001 as a consolidated city-county.[7][8] The newest county-equivalents are the Alaskan boroughs of Skagway established in 2007, Wrangell established in 2008, and Petersburg established in 2013.[9]

County variations

Consolidated city-counties

Main article: Consolidated city–county

A consolidated city-county is simultaneously a city, which is a municipal corporation (municipality), and a county, which is an administrative division of a state, having the powers and responsibilities of both types of entities. There are 40 consolidated city-counties in the U.S.,[1] including Denver, Colorado; Indianapolis, Indiana; Jacksonville, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and San Francisco, California.

Similarly, some of Alaska's boroughs have merged with their principal cities creating unified city-boroughs. Some such consolidations and mergers have created cities that rank among the geographically largest cities in the world, though often with population densities far below those of most urban areas.

County equivalents

The term county equivalents is used to describe divisions whose organization differs from that of most counties:

  • Alaska census areas: Most of the land area of Alaska is not contained within any of Alaska's 19 organized boroughs and one unorganized borough. This vast area, larger than France and Germany combined, is officially referred to by the Alaska state government as the Unorganized Borough, and, outside of other incorporated borough limits, has no independent "county" government, although several incorporated city governments exist within its boundaries; the majority of it is governed and run by the State of Alaska as an extension of state government.A[›] The United States Census Bureau, in cooperation with the Alaska state government for census and electoral districting purposes, has divided the Unorganized Borough into 11 census areas for statistical purposes only.B[›]
  • Independent cities: These are cities that legally belong to no county. They differ from consolidated city-counties—where a city and county have been merged into one unified jurisdiction. As of 2012, there are 41 such cities in the United States, including Baltimore, Maryland; Carson City, Nevada; St. Louis, Missouri; and all 38 cities in Virginia, where any incorporated as a city is outside of the county jurisdiction.[10][11]
  • Washington, D.C.,[12] outside the jurisdiction of any state, has a special status. The city of Washington comprises the entirety of the District of Columbia, which, in accordance with Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. When founded, the District was in fact divided into two counties and two independent cities. Alexandria County (which now forms Arlington County and a portion of the independent city of Alexandria) was given back to Virginia in 1846, while the three remaining entities (the City of Washington, Georgetown City, and Washington County) were merged into a consolidated government by an act of Congress in 1871 and Georgetown was formally abolished as a city entity by another act in 1895.

Consolidated city-counties are not designated county-equivalents for administrative purposes; since they maintain the responsibilities of both city and county government, in the context of administrative division, they are properly classified as counties in their own right.

Prior to 1997, the Census Bureau had recognized the portion of Yellowstone National Park within Montana as separate from any county, despite the fact that the State of Montana had recognized this land as being within adjacent counties since 1978. This area is no longer considered a county equivalent.


The site of a county's administration, and often the county courthouse, is called the county seat ("parish seat" or "borough seat" in Louisiana or Alaska). Several New England counties use the term "shire town" for the county seat.

Many counties are divided into smaller political or governmental units. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, counties are divided into civil townships (or "towns" in New England, New York, and Wisconsin), which may provide governmental or public services.

County names

Common sources of county names are names of people, geographic features, places in other states or countries, Native American tribes, and animals. Quite a few counties bear names of French or Spanish origin.[13]

Counties are most often named for people, often political figures or early settlers, with over 2,100 of the 3,140 total so named. The most common county name, with 31, is Washington County, for America's first president, George Washington. Up until 1871, there was a Washington County within the District of Columbia, but it was dissolved by the District of Columbia Organic Act. Jefferson County, for Thomas Jefferson, is next with 27. The most recent president to have a county named for him was Warren G. Harding, reflecting the slowing rate of county creation since New Mexico and Arizona became states in 1912. The most common names for counties not named after presidents are Franklin (25), Clay (18), and Montgomery (18).

After people, the next most common source of county names are geographic features and locations, with some counties even being named after counties in other states, or for places in countries such as the United Kingdom. The most common geographic county name is Lake. Native American tribes and animals lend their names to some counties. Quite a few counties bear names of French or Spanish origin, such as Marquette County being named after French missionary Father Jacques Marquette.[13]

The county's equivalent in the state of Louisiana, the parish (Fr. paroisse civil and Sp. parroquia) took its name during the state's French and Spanish colonial periods. Before the Louisiana Purchase and granting of statehood, government was often administered in towns where major church parishes were located. Of the original 19 civil parishes of Louisiana that date from statehood in 1807, nine were named after the Roman Catholic parishes from which they were governed.

County government

The powers of counties arise from state law and vary widely.[14] In some states including Connecticut and Rhode Island,[15][16] counties are geographic entities, but not governmental jurisdictions. At the other extreme, Maryland counties and the county-equivalent City of Baltimore handle almost all services, including public education, although the state retains an active oversight authority with many of these services.[17]

In most Midwestern and Northeastern states, counties are further subdivided into townships or towns and may contain other independent, self-governing municipalities.

Counties are usually governed by an elected board of supervisors, county commission, county freeholders, county council, or county legislature. In some counties, there is a county executive.

In many states, the board in charge of a county holds powers that transcend all three traditional branches of government. It has the legislative power to enact ordinances for the county; it has the executive power to oversee the executive operations of county government; and it has quasi-judicial power with regard to certain limited matters (such as hearing appeals from the planning commission if one exists).

The day-to-day operations of the county government are sometimes overseen by an elected county executive or by a chief administrative officer or county administrator who reports to the board, the mayor, or both.

In many states, several important officials are elected separately from the board of commissioners or supervisors and cannot be fired by the board. These positions may include county clerk, county treasurer, county surrogate, district attorney, sheriff, and others.

Scope of power

The power of county governments varies widely from state to state, as does the relationship between counties and incorporated cities. The government of the county usually resides in a municipality called the county seat. However, some counties may have multiple seats or no seat. In some small counties with no incorporated municipalities, a large settlement may serve as the county seat.

Minimal scope

In New England, counties function at most as judicial court districts and sheriff's departments (presently, in Connecticut only as judicial court districts—and in Rhode Island, they have lost both those functions and all others), and most of the governmental authority below the state level is in the hands of towns and cities. In several of Maine's sparsely populated counties, small towns rely on the county for law enforcement, and in New Hampshire several social programs are administered at the state level. In some New England states, such as in Connecticut, parts of Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, counties are now only geographic designations, and they do not have any governmental powers. All government is either done at the state level or at the municipal level. In Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts, regional councils have been established to partially fill the void left behind by the abolished county governments.[18] The regional councils' authority is limited compared with a county government—they have authority only over infrastructure and land use planning, distribution of state and federal funds for infrastructure projects, emergency preparedness, and limited law enforcement duties.

Moderate scope

In the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, counties typically provide, at a minimum, courts, public utilities, libraries, hospitals, public health services, parks, roads, law enforcement, and jails. There is usually a county registrar, recorder, or clerk (the exact title varies) who collects vital statistics, holds elections (sometimes in coordination with a separate elections office or commission), and prepares or processes certificates of births, deaths, marriages, and dissolutions (divorce decrees). The county recorder normally maintains the official record of all real estate transactions. Other key county officials include the coroner/medical examiner, treasurer, assessor, auditor, controller, and district attorney.

In most states, the county sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county. However, except in major emergencies where clear chains of command are essential, the county sheriff normally does not directly control the police departments of city governments, but merely cooperates with them (e.g., under mutual aid pacts). Thus, the most common interaction between county and city law enforcement personnel is when city police officers deliver suspects to sheriff's deputies for detention or incarceration in the county jail.

In virtually all U.S. states, the state courts and local law enforcement are organized and implemented along county boundaries, but nearly all of the substantive and procedural law adjudicated in state trial courts originates from the state legislature and state appellate courts. In other words, most criminal defendants are prosecuted for violations of state law, not local ordinances, and if they, the district attorney, or police seek reforms to the criminal justice system, they will usually have to direct their efforts towards the state legislature rather than the county (which merely implements state law). A typical criminal defendant will be arraigned and subsequently indicted or held over for trial before a trial court in and for a particular county where the crime occurred, kept in the county jail (if he is not granted bail or cannot make bail), prosecuted by the county's district attorney, and tried before a jury selected from that county. But long-term incarceration is rarely a county responsibility, execution of capital punishment is never a county responsibility, and the state's responses to prisoners' appeals is the responsibility of the state attorney general, who has to defend before the state appellate courts the prosecutions conducted by locally-elected district attorneys in the name of the state. Furthermore, county-level trial court judges are officers of the judicial branch of the state government rather than county governments.

In many states, the county controls all unincorporated lands within its boundaries. In states with a township tier, unincorporated land is controlled by the townships. Residents of unincorporated land who are dissatisfied with county-level or township-level resource allocation decisions can attempt to vote to incorporate as a city, town, or village.

A few counties directly provide public transportation themselves, usually in the form of a simple bus system. However, in most counties, public transportation is provided by one of the following: a special-purpose district that is coterminous with the county (but exists separately from the county government), a multi-county regional transit authority, or a state agency.

Broad scope

In western and southern states, more populated counties provide many facilities, such as airports, convention centers, museums, recreation centers, beaches, harbors, zoos, clinics, law libraries, and public housing. They provide services such as child and family services, elder services, mental health services, welfare services, veterans assistance services, animal control, probation supervision, historic preservation, food safety regulation, and environmental health services. They have many additional officials like public defenders, arts commissioners, human rights commissioners, and planning commissioners. Finally, there may also be a county fire department and even a county police department (as distinguished from fire and police departments operated by individual cities, special districts, or the state government). For example, Gwinnett County, Georgia, and its county seat, the city of Lawrenceville, each have their own police departments. (A separate county sheriff's department is responsible for security of the county courts and administration of the county jail.)

Maryland, in particular, vests its counties with broad powers, including educational responsibilities (which are normally handled in all other states by school districts specific to particular cities, towns, or regions).


As of 2012, there were 3,007 counties, 64 parishes, 19 organized boroughs, 11 census areas, 42 independent cities, and the District of Columbia for a total of 3,144 counties and county-equivalents in the United States.[2] The average number of counties per state is 62, with a range from the three counties of Delaware to the 254 counties of Texas.

Southern and Midwestern states generally tend to have more counties than Western or Northeastern states, as many Northeastern states are not large enough in area to warrant a large number of counties, and many Western states were sparsely populated when counties were created. The five counties of Rhode Island, the eight counties of Connecticut, and eight of the 14 counties of Massachusetts no longer have functional county governments, but continue to exist as legal and census entities.

Number of counties and county-equivalents in the United States of America

State or district 2012 population[2] Land area[19] Number of
Number of
land area
Alabama 4,822,023 50,645 sq mi
131,171 km2
67 0 67 71,970 756 sq mi
1,958 km2
Alaska[20] 731,449 570,641 sq mi
1,477,953 km2
30 30 25,222 19,677 sq mi
50,964 km2
Arizona 6,553,255 113,594 sq mi
294,207 km2
15 0 15 436,884 7,573 sq mi
19,614 km2
Arkansas 2,949,131 52,035 sq mi
134,771 km2
75 0 75 39,322 694 sq mi
1,797 km2
California 38,041,430 155,779 sq mi
403,466 km2
58 0 58 655,887 2,686 sq mi
6,956 km2
Colorado 5,187,582 103,642 sq mi
268,431 km2
64 0 64 81,056 1,619 sq mi
4,194 km2
Connecticut 3,590,347 4,842 sq mi
12,542 km2
8 0 8 448,793 605 sq mi
1,568 km2
Delaware 917,092 1,949 sq mi
5,047 km2
3 0 3 305,697 650 sq mi
1,682 km2
District of Columbia[21] 632,323 61 sq mi
158 km2
1 1 632,323 61 sq mi
158 km2
Florida 19,317,568 53,625 sq mi
138,887 km2
67 0 67 288,322 800 sq mi
2,073 km2
Georgia 9,919,945 57,513 sq mi
148,959 km2
159 0 159 62,390 362 sq mi
937 km2
Hawaiʻi 1,392,313 6,423 sq mi
16,635 km2
5 0 5 278,463 1,285 sq mi
3,327 km2
Idaho 1,595,728 82,643 sq mi
214,045 km2
44 0 44 36,267 1,878 sq mi
4,865 km2
Illinois 12,875,255 55,519 sq mi
143,793 km2
102 0 102 126,228 544 sq mi
1,410 km2
Indiana 6,537,334 35,826 sq mi
92,789 km2
92 0 92 71,058 389 sq mi
1,009 km2
Iowa 3,074,186 55,857 sq mi
144,669 km2
99 0 99 31,052 564 sq mi
1,461 km2
Kansas 2,885,905 81,759 sq mi
211,754 km2
105 0 105 27,485 779 sq mi
2,017 km2
Kentucky 4,380,415 39,486 sq mi
102,269 km2
120 0 120 36,503 329 sq mi
852 km2
Louisiana[22] 4,601,893 43,204 sq mi
111,898 km2
64 64 71,905 675 sq mi
1,748 km2
Maine 1,329,192 30,843 sq mi
79,883 km2
16 0 16 83,075 1,928 sq mi
4,993 km2
Maryland[23] 5,884,563 9,707 sq mi
25,142 km2
23 1 24 245,190 404 sq mi
1,048 km2
Massachusetts 6,646,144 7,800 sq mi
20,202 km2
14 0 14 474,725 557 sq mi
1,443 km2
Michigan 9,883,360 56,539 sq mi
146,435 km2
83 0 83 119,077 681 sq mi
1,764 km2
Minnesota 5,379,139 79,627 sq mi
206,232 km2
87 0 87 61,829 915 sq mi
2,370 km2
Mississippi 2,984,926 46,923 sq mi
121,531 km2
82 0 82 36,402 572 sq mi
1,482 km2
Missouri[24] 6,021,988 68,742 sq mi
178,040 km2
114 1 115 52,365 598 sq mi
1,548 km2
Montana 1,005,141 145,546 sq mi
376,962 km2
56 0 56 17,949 2,599 sq mi
6,731 km2
Nebraska 1,855,525 76,824 sq mi
198,974 km2
93 0 93 19,952 826 sq mi
2,140 km2
Nevada[25] 2,758,931 109,781 sq mi
284,332 km2
16 1 17 162,290 6,458 sq mi
16,725 km2
New Hampshire 1,320,718 8,953 sq mi
23,187 km2
10 0 10 132,072 895 sq mi
2,319 km2
New Jersey 8,864,590 7,354 sq mi
19,047 km2
21 0 21 422,123 350 sq mi
907 km2
New Mexico 2,085,538 121,298 sq mi
314,161 km2
33 0 33 63,198 3,676 sq mi
9,520 km2
New York 19,570,261 47,126 sq mi
122,057 km2
62 0 62 315,649 760 sq mi
1,969 km2
North Carolina 9,752,073 48,618 sq mi
125,920 km2
100 0 100 97,521 486 sq mi
1,259 km2
North Dakota 699,628 69,001 sq mi
178,711 km2
53 0 53 13,201 1,302 sq mi
3,372 km2
Ohio 11,544,225 40,861 sq mi
105,829 km2
88 0 88 131,184 464 sq mi
1,203 km2
Oklahoma 3,814,820 68,595 sq mi
177,660 km2
77 0 77 49,543 891 sq mi
2,307 km2
Oregon 3,899,353 95,988 sq mi
248,608 km2
36 0 36 108,315 2,666 sq mi
6,906 km2
Pennsylvania 12,763,536 44,743 sq mi
115,883 km2
67 0 67 190,501 668 sq mi
1,730 km2
Rhode Island 1,050,292 1,034 sq mi
2,678 km2
5 0 5 210,058 207 sq mi
536 km2
South Carolina 4,723,723 30,061 sq mi
77,857 km2
46 0 46 102,690 653 sq mi
1,693 km2
South Dakota 833,354 75,811 sq mi
196,350 km2
66 0 66 12,627 1,149 sq mi
2,975 km2
Tennessee 6,456,243 41,235 sq mi
106,798 km2
95 0 95 67,960 434 sq mi
1,124 km2
Texas 26,059,203 261,232 sq mi
676,587 km2
254 0 254 102,595 1,028 sq mi
2,664 km2
Utah 2,855,287 82,170 sq mi
212,818 km2
29 0 29 98,458 2,833 sq mi
7,339 km2
Vermont 626,011 9,217 sq mi
23,871 km2
14 0 14 44,715 658 sq mi
1,705 km2
Virginia[26] 8,185,867 39,490 sq mi
102,279 km2
95 39 134 61,089 295 sq mi
763 km2
Washington 6,897,012 66,456 sq mi
172,119 km2
39 0 39 176,846 1,704 sq mi
4,413 km2
West Virginia 1,855,413 24,038 sq mi
62,259 km2
55 0 55 33,735 437 sq mi
1,132 km2
Wisconsin 5,726,398 54,158 sq mi
140,268 km2
72 0 72 79,533 752 sq mi
1,948 km2
Wyoming 576,412 97,093 sq mi
251,470 km2
23 0 23 25,061 4,221 sq mi
10,933 km2
United States of America 313,914,040 3,531,905 sq mi
9,147,592 km2
3,007 137 3,144 99,877 1,124 sq mi
2,910 km2


Main article: List of United States counties and county-equivalents

The average U.S. county population was nearly 100,000 in 2012. The most populous county is Los Angeles County, California, with 9,962,789 residents in 2012, greater than all but eight U.S. states. The least populous is Loving County, Texas, with 71 residents in 2012.

The most densely populated county or county-equivalent is New York County, New York (coextensive with the New York City Borough of Manhattan), with 70,924 persons per square mile (27,384 km-2) in 2012. The Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska is both the most extensive and the least densely populated county or county-equivalent with 0.0397 persons per square mile (0.0153 km-2) in 2012.


At the 2000 U.S. Census, the median land area of U.S. counties was 622 sq mi (1,610 km2), which is two-thirds of the median land area of a ceremonial county of England, and a little more than a quarter of the median land area of a French département. Counties in the western United States typically have a much larger land area than those in the eastern United States. For example, the median land area of counties in Georgia is 343 sq mi (890 km2), whereas in Utah it is 2,427 sq mi (6,290 km2).

The most extensive county or county-equivalent is the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska, with a land area of 145,505 square miles (376,856 km2). All nine of the most extensive county-equivalents are in Alaska. The most extensive county is San Bernardino County, California, with a land area of 20,057 square miles (51,947 km2). The least extensive county is Kalawao County, Hawaii, with a land area of 11.991 square miles (31.058 km2). The least extensive county-equivalent is the independent City of Falls Church, Virginia, with a land area of 1.999 square miles (5.177 km2).[1]

Geographic relationships between cities and counties

In general, cities and other incorporated municipalities are smaller subdivisions of counties, but there are exceptions.

In some states, a municipality may reside in only one county and may not annex territory in adjacent counties, but in the majority of states, the state constitution or state law allows municipalities to extend across county boundaries. At least 31 states include municipalities in multiple counties. An extreme example is Aurora, Illinois; originally part of Kane County, Aurora now includes portions of four counties as a result of annexations. New York City is an unusual case of a city in multiple counties. The city comprises five counties in their entirety, each coextensive with one of the five boroughs of the city: Manhattan (New York County), The Bronx (Bronx County), Queens (Queens County), Brooklyn (Kings County) and Staten Island (Richmond County).

See also


^ A: The Unorganized Borough, Alaska formed by the Borough Act of 1961 is a legal entity, run by the Alaska state government as an extension of State government,[27] it and the independently incorporated Unified, Home Rule, First Class and Second Class boroughs roughly correspond to parishes in Louisiana and to counties in the other 48 states.[28]
^ B: These 11 statistical areas are used solely by the United States Census Bureau to tabulate population and other census statistics within the Unorganized Borough; they have no legal basis in Alaska state or federal law other than for electoral representation and federal financial assistance purposes.


External links

  • United States Census Bureau
  • National Association of Counties
  • U.S. County Formation Maps 1617-Present—Cumulative animated graphics.
  • Atlas of Historical County Boundaries
  • Where Americans are moving, by county, in 2010


Template:USCensus Geography

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