Time Machine

Time Machine: What happened to Iowa's 100th county?

Or, why is Kossuth County twice the size of most Iowa counties?

This 1855 map of Iowa shows Bancroft County along the state’s northern border. The county was eliminated and merged into Kossuth County in 1855, right after this map was published.
This 1855 map of Iowa shows Bancroft County along the state’s northern border. The county was eliminated and merged into Kossuth County in 1855, right after this map was published.
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For those who like round numbers, this fact is comforting: Iowa once had 100 counties. Actually, twice. But only briefly.

Iowa became a state in 1846, and the third General Assembly of Iowa on Jan. 15, 1851, passed a bill creating 52 counties to add to Iowa’s already organized 48, for 100 total.

Among them were two counties in north-central Iowa — Kossuth, named for a Hungarian patriot, and Bancroft, north of Kossuth, named for renowned historian George Bancroft, a diplomat and author.

Bancroft’s county seat was designated as Greenwood Center. Kossuth’s county seat was Algona.

At the time, Bancroft County was not hospitable to settlement, given its marshes and wetlands and the vast prairie between Algona and Blue Earth, Minn. It was easy to get lost without an experienced guide, and few, if any, pioneers chose to settle there.

In 1855, Bancroft County was eliminated and its land added to Kossuth County, directly south of it. In addition, the northernmost 12 miles of Humboldt County also was added to Kossuth, making it the largest county — by land area — in the state.

EFFORT FOR 100

That’s where things stood in 1857 — 99 counties — when Iowa’s Constitution took effect.

The constitution included an article saying no new county could be created if it had less than 432 square miles. It also prohibited taking land from an established county to create a new county — except in Worth County and the counties west of it — about half the state.

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That meant that, even with the constitution’s restraints, it would be possible to split Kossuth County into two counties.

After the Civil War, settlers began to arrive in the northern part of Kossuth County, first building sod houses and then settlements. The people who settled in the former Bancroft County area began exploring how the area could again become its own county.

The settlers asked their representative in the Iowa General Assembly, H.G. Day, to propose creating a new Crocker County, named for Col. M.M. Crocker, who died in the Civil War, with Greenwood Center as its county seat.

When no opposing views surfaced, Day consulted with Judge Asa Call of Kossuth County. Call said he didn’t think anyone in the county seriously objected to splitting off Crocker County.

In April 1870, the General Assembly took land from Kossuth County to create Crocker County. With that, Iowa again had 100 counties.

COURT RULINGS

By the end of 1871, though, the whole effort was sidelined by an Iowa Supreme Court decision, L.K. Garfield vs. R.I. Brayton.

The lawsuit was a friendly one that intended to prove Crocker County had been legally established, even though it had less than 432 square miles, as the Constitution required.

A justice of the peace ruled Crocker County wasn’t legal, as did an Emmet County circuit court judge. The caes was appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The justices also concluded Crocker County had been created illegally.

“We have approached this case with a strong desire to sustain the constitutionality of this county and have reluctantly yielded to the necessity of doing otherwise,” the justices ruled. “In the eloquent language of appellee’s counsel (O’Connor), we hoped ‘that Crocker Co. might endure as long as the name of brave men shall be dear to the hearts of the people of Iowa.’ But law is inexorable and to its stern behests sentiment must yield.”

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The decision eliminated Crocker County and returned its land to Kossuth County, bringing Iowa back to 99 counties.

LARRABEE COUNTY

In February 1913, state Rep. James McHose of Boone led another attempt to divide Kossuth County. He proposed naming the new county in honor of Iowa’s 13th governor, William Larrabee.

This time, residents of northern Kossuth County sent a delegation to Des Moines asking that the county not be divided.

The issue was put to a vote in the 1914 November election. The proposition lost, 3,599 to 920.

bancroft name

The name Bancroft, however, continued to live on as the name of a village in Kossuth County. Its population is now 732.

George Bancroft was delighted to learn he had a village named for him.

Bancroft, who served under President James K. Polk as secretary of the Navy, had established the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He was a diplomat to Great Britain and later to Prussia. He also wrote a 12-volume history of the world, beginning with his “History of the United States,” in 1834.

When he learned about the Iowa village bearing his name, he donated a page of handwritten manuscript to the Iowa state historian, Charles Aldrich. The framed page is in the state’s archives.

• Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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