County and other local government units in the United States take their basic form from similar units developed in the original 13 English colonies in this country. Naturally, the colonial form of local government was developed by the English colonist along lines similar to the local government institutions existing in England when colonization of the Americans took place. Therefore, a historical background of Minnesota counties must include a short discussion of the English local government form as it developed up to the beginning of the 17th century. Printable Minnesota County Map PDF (with county seats)
In the Anglo-Saxon period of English history ending with the Norman conquest (Battle of Hastings in 1066) there were units of local government known as shires and townships. The principal officer of the shire was known as the reeve, in some cases known as the shire-reeve, which even in those early times was sometimes contracted to be the word “sheriff ”.
Not long after that time there were local government officials known as constables, justices of the peace and coroners. A shire court that was presided over by the sheriff was a form developed in very early times and it continued into the 1600’s. The sheriff was usually an appointee of the Crown and carried out certain responsibilities of local government as directed by the Crown. You may recall from school days (or present television accounts) that the Tales of Robin Hood present the Sheriff of Nottingham Shire as the chief military officer of the shire with responsibility to keep the peace and as the collector of taxes.
By the early 1600’s, the English Crown permitted the election of a surveyor of highways. Although local roads were generally maintained by a labor tax that required the citizenry to work on the roads, provision was also made for the levying of a highway tax. Poor relief originally was identified as a church responsibility but with the dissolution of the monasteries the Crown passed a law known as the Poor Law of 1601, which established a system of parish taxation for the care of the poor. A series of acts followed generally called the Elizabeth Poor Laws that established relief and welfare as a government responsibility.
As the government of England separated from the Roman church, church officials lost some of their power in local government but church courts continued to have some identifiable duties. These included matters concerned with marriage and divorce, poor of wills, and the administration of estates and guardianships. The local court grew in importance and was given authority beyond judicial matters.
A number of laws were passed which regulated the duties and responsibilities of some local officials. Early English history records the smallest administrative unit of government as the town or township which was often the same size and area as the church parish. Its most important officer was the constable who was subject to a considerable extent to direction by the justice of the peace but who had certain duties and responsibilities in the keeping of the peace. By the 1600’s there had developed what was known as a vestry meeting of a general assembly of the parish (township) with all of the inhabitants of the parish ordinarily permitted to attend.
It would be difficult to trace directly many of the elements of current local government in Minnesota back to the corresponding government in English history but some of the units of government, the titles of officials, their duties, and in some instances, particular functions of government can be identified. If these forms had continued without change, the sheriff in Minnesota could be the chief executive officer of the county. More directly, however, the institutions and units of local government and the officers holding positions in it during the early 1600’s in England could be expected to appear in the English colonies of America because the colonists were familiar with the forms and as a consequence took them to this country. The New England colonies and states that developed from them were colonized with strong local communities and it could therefore be expected that the town unit of government would be quite strong. Most of these communities held an annual town meeting similar to the vestry meeting or an assembly of freeholders that had existed in England.
In 1643, Massachusetts Colony divided into 4 shires and a few years later provision was made for representatives from the towns to gather for purposes of government of the shires. This group was given a new power that allowed it to equalize taxes between the smaller units, thus beginning the local representation on the county board that was later established in New York State as a Board of Supervisors. In 1654 the shires of Massachusetts Colony each elected a treasurer as its chief financial officer. Counties were established in 1666 in Connecticut and by a law passed in 1704, provision was made for a local officer to prosecute crimes. This officer was the forerunner of the prosecuting attorney who now exists in practically all states by one title or another. Rhode Island, in 1793, provided for counties whose sole purpose then, as now, was for judicial administration.
The Southern colonies of Virginia and Maryland began with a local unit of government which centered around the “plantation” or parish form and which set up the usual “area court,” usually meeting four times a year or quarterly, as was the practice in England. The colony of Virginia was divided into eight shires in 1634. As additional shires or counties were organized, the county became the unit for representation in the Colonial Assembly. The usual officers were the sheriff (who was tax collector and treasurer), justice of the peace, land surveyor, and coroner appointed by the governor of the colony. The justices appointed a clerk of the court who acted as recorder of deeds. Maryland began with a local government form patterned after an English county but over a period of time developed a form similar to the local government of Virginia.
After the English wrested control of New York from the Dutch and, almost from the beginning in the other middle Atlantic colonies of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey, the English system of local government prevailed. New York State in the late 1600’s divided into 10 counties and elected a county board consisting of a freeholder elected from each town to supervise the levying and assessment of local taxes. The original justices of the peace became primarily judicial officers as the supervisors took over more of the administration of the county. The New Jersey system developed much like that of New York and provision was made for the election of town assessors, which in time developed into the Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Pennsylvania developed counties, which began much like the early system in New York and New Jersey. In the more sparsely settled areas changes were made which resulted in a board of 3 elected commissioners in each county who became the chief administrative authority, similar to the board of supervisors in New York State. Pennsylvania elected its first sheriff in 1705 and created a new county office, “recorder of deeds,” first appointed by the Governor in 1715.
The southern colonial development saw the county court becoming increasingly important as the administrative arm of the county government. The colonists, who pushed westward into what became the Northwest Territory, brought their existing systems with them along with new innovations that formed the basis for county government in our present Middle Western states. The territorial governor appointed the first county officials. The first county existing in the Northwest Territory had a sheriff, coroner, treasurer, recorder of deeds, a probate judge, and justices. 1800 county boards of three appointed commissioners that had been created to levy and assess taxes and to audit claims formed a county court. Townships did exist but merely as a land measurement, which was the result of a national government, survey which set out rectangular areas of land six miles by six miles. Unlike the New England pattern, townships were not often used as a primary unit of local government in the Northwest Territory. Ohio was the first state organized out of the Northwest Territory. Shortly after its creation as a state, provision was made for elected boards of county commissioners with fiscal and administrative powers similar to the former county court. Sheriffs, coroners, and justices of the peace were elected offices.
Minnesota County Development
That part of present day Minnesota lying between the Mississippi and the St. Croix Rivers was in the original Northwest Territory and part of the Wisconsin Territory. The settlement, which is now Stillwater, was once part of St. Croix County, Wisconsin. When Minnesota became a territory in 1849 its territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey, proclaimed that the same laws as those existing in Wisconsin would govern the new Minnesota Territory. This, combined with the fact that much of the migration to Minnesota came through Wisconsin, caused the development of both strong county and town forms of government as had been the case in Wisconsin, New York and Michigan. The first Minnesota counties were Benton, Dakotah, Itasca, Ramsey Wabasha, and Washington established on October 27, 1849. Three other counties, Mankahto, Pembina and Wahnata were created by Laws 1849 but there is no historical evidence to indicate that they were ever organized - or abolished. 57 of the present 87 counties were established during the territorial period that ended in 1857. Lake of the Woods County was the last one established in Minnesota. It was created by popular vote from territory that had been part of Beltrami County.