Counting Counties


I was about seven years old when I got my first copy of the Rand McNally Road Atlas (RMRA), and I’ve rarely been more than 50 feet away from one ever since. Unless I was out of the country, there has probably never been a day when I haven’t looked at it at least once.

The obvious question that a kid would ask is: What is the smallest county in the United States? In those days, RMRA alphabetized counties separately from cities and towns in the index, so it was a simple matter to go through and search for the smallest one. But I didn’t have the patience to sort through all 50 states; instead I tried to use some cleverness.

I assumed that the smallest county would not be in populous states, so I excluded places like California and New York. Further, the RMRA didn’t list any counties for Alaska (nor does it today), so that state didn’t count. Thus the logical choice (for a kid) was Wyoming – the least populous state in the union (then excluding Alaska). But I soon noticed that Wyoming only had 23 counties – so despite the small overall population, it seemed unlikely that any of them were very small. Indeed, Wyoming has no counties with fewer than 1000 people.

So the trick was not only to find a sparsely populated state, but also one with a lot of counties. North Dakota, with less than 700,000 people but with 53 counties, fits the bill. And indeed, I came across Arthur County, population 444, which seemed a likely candidate.

But South Dakota has 66 counties and Nebraska 93, so it is possible that a smaller county existed in one of those two states. No joy – Arthur was smaller than any of those 159.

I confidently went out into the world thinking Arthur County, ND was the smallest county in the United States.

But then it dawned on me that Texas had 254 counties. In those days it wasn’t the population behemoth that it is today, and with only 269,000 square miles, a lot of those counties had to be pretty small.

And so I found it – Loving County – population 67. That’s its population today; I can’t recall the number from the 1950 census (which would have been the number I found), but I think it was very close to that. And Loving County really is the smallest county (by population) in the United States even now.

So am I telling you anything you didn’t already know? Probably not – I’m guessing most readers of this blog have long since learned this little bit of trivia. And you learned it from Wikipedia, here. You will also discover that Arthur County is only fifth on the list, bigger than three counties in Texas.

Wikipedia makes it just much too easy! Imagine, if you will, that I’d had Wikipedia as a child. Think of all the articles I could write for this blog containing utterly useless information about everything. No more cleverness or labor required – all data is right there at your fingertips.

Now maybe I can play one-up-man-ship with Wikipedia? Through careful study of the RMRA, I discovered three states that have exclaves: New York, Kentucky and Hawaii.

* Liberty Island and the parts of Ellis Island that belong to New York are surrounded by New Jersey. These are also exclaves of New York County (Manhattan).
* The westernmost part of Kentucky (part of Fulton County) cannot be reached without crossing Missouri or Tennessee.
* Oahu and Kauai are separated by more than 24 miles, which means that one has to cross international waters to get from one to the other. (But since they are different counties, neither Honolulu nor Kauai counties have exclaves.)

I also note that Brookline, MA is in Norfolk County, separated from the rest of the county by Middlesex and Somerset counties.

So there, Wikipedia! Oh – alright – not so fast. See here. I haven’t had the courage to go through it all and see what I’m missing. Why bother?

There are some questions for which the RMRA is not especially useful. For example, what are the largest and smallest counties by land area? Excluding Alaska (and by all means, let’s exclude Alaska), then simply by inspection any kid will tell you that San Bernardino, CA, is the biggest county in the country. At 20,000 square miles, it is almost as big as West Virginia.

What is the smallest county? Before resorting to Wikipedia, I spent a sleepless night pondering this problem. I thought Hawaii’s Kalawao County might fit the bill. Boy was I wrong!

Kalawao County is what’s left over from Father Damien’s leper colony on the north coast of Molokai. At midnight, I thought it was just the famous little peninsula that juts offshore. However my American Road Atlas (published by Langenscheidt, and nicer but considerably pricier than the RMRA) shows the county is considerably bigger than that – by about 2 or 3 times.

And what about RMRA? Shockingly, it doesn’t show Kalawao County at all, neither on the map nor in the index! I don’t think it ever has. I find this bothersome.

Nevertheless, neither atlas cites areas of any county, so it really is necessary to turn to Wikipedia. Wonderfully enough, Wikipedia does not have a list of the smallest counties by area – they only list the smallest county in each state – and then you have to look at a state list. Now there’s a good job here for some kid!

The matter is complicated because Virginia has a series of independent cities – the smallest of which is Falls Church. At 2.2 square miles, this is the smallest county-like subdivision in the US. But it isn’t a county. The smallest actual county is Arlington County, VA, at 26 square miles (compared to Kalawao’s 52).

Now what subtle distinction in local governance disqualifies Falls Church, and grants Arlington the status of smallest county? I have no idea.

A county that I’ve never heard of – Colorado’s Broomfield County – has only 28 square miles. It surrounds a suburb of Denver by the same name – how it got to be its own county I have no idea. And Bristol County, RI, clocks in at 45.

But this is not the worst. I can surely be forgiven for overlooking city-states in Virginia or anomalies in Colorado. What is harder to understand is how I missed Manhattan! New York County (which includes Manhattan, some smaller islands, and Marble Hill) comes in at 34 square miles. This, surely, would have been a better midnight guess for the smallest county in the country.

Wikipedia makes me feel old, rendering the skills of a lifetime obsolete. Just the other week my daughter suggested I needed to buy a GPS.


Daniel Jelski is Dean of Science & Engineering State University of New York at New Paltz.

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But South Dakota has 66 counties and Nebraska 93, so it is possible that a smaller county existed in one of those two states. No joy – Arthur was smaller than any of those 159.Somanabolic Muscle Maximizer Scam

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Recounting Counties

Geopathman is correct - Arthur County is in Nebraska. I knew that - sorry.

I'll stand by my account of Fulton County, Kentucky. There's no way you can swim there without crossing a state line. As far as I know, no other meandering of the Mississippi River has produced the same effect.

I'll concede the Oahu - Kauai issue is a matter of judgment. It assumes that territorial waters are only 12 miles from shore - so being more than 25 miles apart means crossing international waters. But all that is speculation.

I'm not aware of Alaskan islands that are more than 25 miles from another island that is, itself, 25 miles away. But that doesn't mean such doesn't exist.


I don't know the legal definition of an exclave, but the examples given suggest to me that Washington state has one, too: Point Roberts is accessible over land only by leaving the US and going through British Columbia.
And conversely, though I'm not an international law-of-the-sea person, I'd question whether the water between Kauai and Oahu was international; I would have thought waters internal to a jurisdictional entity that close would be internal. The 2400 miles from Hawaii to the mainland clearly are international waters (except for 12 or 300 miles), but if Hawaii has exclaves, then doesn't Alaska? Some of those gaps are probably greater than 12 or even 50 miles.

Great subject, undercut by errors

As the secretary of the Extra Miler Club (, an organization whose members' primary goal in travel is to visit all the counties of the US (and boroughs/etc in AK, parishes in LA, and ICs in four states), I was delighted to see this topic. But disappointed to see such things as Arthur County being placed in sparsely populated North Dakota instead of sparsely populated Nebraska, among several other sparsely populated counties. Although Rand McNally is widely used, it's not necessarily the only atlas available - nor was it in the 1950s when I started looking at my Gousha atlas, nor has it ever been. But better than an atlas for specific data is the World Almanac - which has pages of detailed county listings for both population and area. However, getting people to look at maps as something other than an object of horror is a wonderful accomplishment, so I applaud your memo. And encourage fact-checking while doing so.

Somerset County?

There is no Somerset county in Massachusetts. You must be thinking about New Jersey, in which Somerset and Middlesex counties are adjacent. But I always enjoyed seeing that Brookline was separate from the rest of its county (even if it's only separated by Middlesex county).

And yes, I'm another atlas geek of long standing.

Fulton County

Sorry Dave, but to get from one part of Fulton County to another, you'd have to swim through either Missouri or Tennessee (or both).

It would be a whole lot less work to just drive through Tennessee.

Carter Lake, Iowa, on the other hand, looks and acts like an exclave of Iowa surrounded by Omaha, NE. But for a good swimmer could get there without leaving Iowa.

Thanks for your comments.

Swimming to Kentucky

I agree with your reply to Dave, but ask this in relation to a number if Mississippi river gaps and changes. If you can't get from one side of the river to the other without a boat or going to another state, is it always an exclave? I know the changes in the river have, over the decades, created a number of places where a supposed "eastern" state has land on the west side, and vice versa. In fact, Kentucky has a land border with Missouri northeast of that exclave; I've been to it, but not by boat. I was in Missouri and drove to it easily enough. But are such places exclaves? (That one seemed to have maybe one or two buildings on it, part of one farm.)

Also, Delaware has a bit of land on the NJ side of the Delaware river, near Finns Point. Exclave?


"* The westernmost part of Kentucky (part of Fulton County) cannot be reached without crossing Missouri or Tennessee."

I think you can reach all of western KY without leaving KY. You just have to swim.

The beauty of the USA

is that we have these strange rules for each state.
Can you imagine France with these types of rules? No way. Way too much central control.
For more fun, learn about New York's villages and towns.


In the program there is a GPS demo option from the menu. It shows a little purple (I think that's the color) crosshair moving along a route. The map kind of moves with it and you can also drag the map at the same time. In case you wanted to drag the map ahead of the GPS area a little bit. I didn't drag the map so far that the crosshairs went off the screen, but I can test it out later and post more if no one has added anything by then.

Abby - cfd consultant.

Virginia cities

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, all cities are, by definition and by state law, independent of adjoining (or in several cases, surrounding counties). Even small cities like Falls Church (1.99 square miles) and Manassas Park (2.49 square miles) are independent.

Now Virginia law also allows municipalities to incorporate as towns, in which case they remain part a county. Examples of municipalities in Virginia incorporated as towns include Leesburg and Blacksburg.

Curiously, Virginia's neighbor to the north, Maryland, allows cities to be independent of nearby counties but state law does not mandate independence for cities like Virginia does. The only city in Maryland that is independent is Baltimore (city) (not to be confused with adjacent and entirely separate Baltimore County). Over the years, some Maryland cities have made threats to declare independence from the county in which they are located, but this has not happened.

Virginia's IC's

In the past 20 years, a couple of Virginia's IC's felt they could no longer afford to operate, and successfully dissolved themselves, becoming towns which were within their counties. Apparently the main results were financial and security support from their counties. So if you're trying to visit all of Virginia's counties and IC's now, you can omit South Boston and Clifton Forge from your efforts; they're not independent. After the second one, I heard that the state legislature passed a law which prohibits any other IC's from disbanding - at the behest of counties which did not want to take on the responsibilities. If this was true, then theoretically Virginia's status of 134 total (95+39) is now fixed.


And just to add a bit to that, part of the thinking was that it's impractical to have a city located in multiple counties. IIRC Aurora's had talk recently of breaking off to form their own county as they're spread across 3 different counties.

All of this county, city expansion makes for all sorts of interesting enclaves. If you're feeling especially geeky, check out of the city and county borders in metro Denver and Boulder including Glendale.

City in Multiple Counties

One can take it either way: New York City encompasses five counties. Whether it's an example of success or failure probably depends on your point of view, but it's there, whatever conclusion you draw.

Aurora should just . . . well, split into several cities, instead of breaking up the counties? Hard to say.

I live in a Washington DC suburb. Washington is definitely a big city (3 million+) with multiple jurisdictions and all the problems that follow, since DC is NOT in charge of "Montgomery Fairfax Arlington Fauquier Prince Georges Alexandria Falls Church" and maybe not entirely in charge of itself (thank you Congressional oversight).


"A county that I’ve never heard of – Colorado’s Broomfield County – has only 28 square miles. It surrounds a suburb of Denver by the same name – how it got to be its own county I have no idea."

Broomfield County was created by the voters in 2001. It is one of 2 "consolidated county and city" in the state. The other is Denver.

Dave Barnes