Evolution of Ohio Counties

It is probable that the people who read this article will all know that the State of Ohio was not always divided into the number of counties there now are, and that to evolve the present map, a long period of time and many mutations of county outlines were necessary. But few people, however, know the extent of the evolution that has been going on, in bringing Ohio counties within their present environments. From the erection of the first county, in 1788, the number has been made to grow each year, by cutting down the size of those previously formed, until, by the limits of the constitution of 1851, requiring each of them to contain four hundred square miles, it is scarcely possible to now find a locality where the existing counties could let territory enough go to form a new one.

The importance of the county as a political unit varies in different parts of the United States. In New England it takes a secondary rank, that of the townships being first. In the Southern States the position is reversed, the county, or parish as it is called, being the leading agency for local government. In the State of Ohio, as also in the other Western States, the county and the township each has its special features in the frame of government, and they do not vary much in their importance.

The structure of government here existing is of such a character, that it may be appropriately called a mixed or dual system, as it properly has a double unit in the township and county, for each of these divisions has its primary functions to perform, and neither outranks the other to any great extent. Each is a unit in making up the united whole represented collectively in the State government. As it is possible that there may be some who, in this day of our fully formed State and perfected plan of government, may not be aware that the soil of Ohio was once a part of a territory of the United States, as Alaska, Utah and Oklahoma are now territories, it is proper to refer to the fact, that at one time it was in an unorganized civil condition, and that, later, its first chief magistrate was a territorial governor, appointed by the authorities at Washington, as the governors of Western territories are now selected. The country embracing what are now the States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, first came to be known as a part of our nation, under the name of the Northwest Territory, and provision for its government was made by Congress, through a law known as the Ordinance of 1787. Arthur St. Clair was appointed as the first governor of the Territory and through his action the first counties were established. Historically speaking, county government here came into existence before that of townships. Counties were organized for the purpose of establishing court districts, and county areas were defined about as soon as the work of governing the Territory began. The first law for this domain was for the purpose of regulating the militia, and the second for organizing the courts. Those providing for the officers and affairs of townships came later.

In their original creation and formation, county and township divisions were independent of each other, the townships not being required to first exist as a basic factor in forming the counties, nor the county to be, as it now appears, the aggregation of a number of pre-existing townships. County lines were not, at first, concurrent with township lines, and it was often necessary for the county area to be made up without regard to the confines of townships, because, in some cases, counties were created before the township surveys had been commenced. The Ordinance of 1787 was preceded by what was known as the Ordinance of 1785, sometimes called the Land Ordinance. This made provision for the survey of the western lands, and their division into townships. This however, was for the purpose of getting them into farms, and making them ready for market and occupancy, and not for government. The Ordinance of 1785 applied only to government lands, and made provision that they should be surveyed into townships six miles square, but no rule was ever enacted for laying out the tracts disposed of by the government to land companies. Their proprietors cut them up into farms to suit their own liking, and into sections of various size and form. The United States thus lost control over the manner of running township lines, and what is now regarded as our primary civil division was not laid out with a view of its becoming a factor in a higher county area, or a unit in a county organism.

St. Clair was authorized, by the Ordinance of 1787, to lay out the territory into counties and townships, but there is no record of his ever having interfered with the freedom of land owners to form townships. Counties, however, were never allowed to emerge in the irregular manner that townships did. Their larger functions, and their nearer relation to the central government of the State, made it necessary for the ruling power to assume control of their erection, and alteration, when required, and from the earliest period of our civil existence, counties have been brought into existence by the will of the government, executed through its executive or legislative department. In the progress of our State from an ungoverned wilderness to a fully organized and practically self-governed commonwealth, the edict of the ruling power has always directed the course and length of county boundaries.

With these remarks concerning the nature and historical relation of townships and counties, we now proceed to give something of the details of the evolution of the early Ohio counties.

The Ordinance of 1787 prescribing the manner that the Northwest Territory should be governed, provided that "for the execution of process, civil and criminal, the governor shall make proper divisions thereof; and he shall proceed from time to time, as circumstances may require, to lay out the parts of the district in which the Indian titles have been extinguished, into counties and townships, subject however, to such alterations as may thereafter be made by the legislature."

 

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Source: Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications, Volume 5, John L. Trauger, 1898.

 



 

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