A Count of Counties

I was not paying attention when South Dakota geography was discussed in elementary school. This is a complete list of the places that I could locate on a blank map when I began working for the SDSHS Press:

Fort Pierre
Rapid City
Sioux Falls

I knew the names of other places but could only vaguely place them (Watertown is somewhere to the north of where the sun rises). As for counties, I knew my native county, Hughes, and its trans-Missouri neighbor, Stanley; I knew that Sioux Falls was in Minnehaha County; I knew Lyman County because I had gotten two speeding tickets there in high school; and I knew Moody County because I loved the name.

Shortly after I started working here, I resolved to learn where all the counties are, thinking that it would help me in my work and make me appear marginally less ignorant. I also learned the actual locations of Watertown and other settlements too numerous to list.

The trouble with learning things, though, is that they will go and change on you. Happily, the map of South Dakota has been remarkably stable since 2008, but historically, it’s had a rather protean existence. The last time I checked, South Dakota comprised sixty-six counties. But suppose that I had learned the counties in 1884, five years before statehood?

This is a map showing the arrangement of counties in the area that would become South Dakota as they existed in 1884.1 The discerning viewer will find seventy-six counties on this map, the additional ones lying west of the Missouri. There are some errors on this map—Hamlin County, for example, is missing, although it was created in 1873—but it gives some idea of how much the counties have changed, particularly the West River region.

In theory, political and administrative geography tries to reflect reality, and over time, the state legislature and the residents of Martin, Wagner, Choteau, and Rinehart counties, which probably existed only on paper, found that a single county, Perkins, would be adequate. The same process occurred in other places where counties divided, combined, or shifted their shapes to be a more reasonable fit for local government.

One has to wonder what kind of planning went into the creation of many of South Dakota’s forgotten counties.

“In 1872,” wrote Doane Robinson, the granddaddy of South Dakota history, “the entire unsettled portion of the territory was divided up into counties, chiefly for the purpose of complimenting prominent citizens by applying their names to the respective counties so created.”2

Oh, Doane. What a cynic.


1.South Dakota WPA Writers’ Project, South Dakota Place Names (Vermillion: University of South Dakota, 1941), p.11.

2. History of South Dakota ([Logansport, Ind.]: B. F. Bowen & Co., 1904), p. 300.

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