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While the names of most of South Dakota’s cities belonged to the railroads, the counties were in the hands of the legislators.

When statehood was being considered, there was a flurry of activity to have counties ready for the transition. Sneve wrote “when it came to thinking up names for the new political units, the legislature evidently adopted the you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours attitude, for the list of counties reads like a legislative roll call.”

It even inspired a contemporary couplet of “Many a legislator’s bid to fame / is a county born to bear his name.”

More than 70 counties were originally proposed and more than half were named for prominent politicians. That included 25 named for territorial legislators, regardless of whether they had actually been there.

Such is the case of Brown County, which was named for Alfred Brown, a Canadian native who moved to the Dakota Territory in 1874. While working in the Legislature in 1879, he earned the nickname “Consolidation Brown” for his leading role in combining and creating new counties. When his work was done there was one unnamed county left, and his colleagues urged him to name it after himself.

Four counties, including Edmunds, were named for territorial governors, and another four for territorial secretaries, as is the case for McCook County. Two congressional delegates, such as John Todd, and five judges, such as Dighton Corson, received similar honors.

A patriotic theme can also be found in the southeastern part of the state, areas settled during or just after the Civil War. One of the best examples is Union County, named for the American union of states.

Clay County was named for Henry Clay, a U.S. secretary of state, speaker of the House of Representatives and architect of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Douglas County gets its name from Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who debated Abraham Lincoln in 1858.

There was even a bill passed by the territorial Legislature during its 1864-1865 session to change the names of Todd, Bon Homme and Charles Mix counties to Jackson, Jefferson and Franklin. While the changes were passed by the body, they did not reach the governor before the last day of the session and they were never made official.

Even those counties not named for politicians still have intriguing back stories. Haakon County was named after King Haakon VII of Norway, but an Irishman was the one who arranged it. Hugh J. McMahon, who ranched near Philip, suggested the name to influence Scandinavian settlers to vote for the county’s creation and select Philip as its seat.

Aurora County was named for the Roman goddess of the dawn. It’s said the name arose from a literary club founded by six wives of the early settlers, where they thought it was a good name because the free homestead land would bring the dawn of a new era.

Oddly enough, the city of Aurora’s name probably doesn’t have the same origin. Sneve said it’s more likely named after Aurora, Ill., the home town of Mrs. W.R. Stowe of Brookings.

Gritzner said modern South Dakotans shouldn’t be too hard on the legislators for naming so much after themselves.

“You have to consider the amount of naming that had to be done in a few years,” Gritzner said.


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