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The other county where records may be found

The issue came up again in a reader question the other day.

Jane R. wanted to know what people did do to handle routine government actions — like paying taxes — when a county had been formed… but hadn’t yet been organized.

The Legal Genealogist has looked at this issue before, but it was a long time ago1 so let’s look at it again.

And we’ll start with a county near and dear to my heart: a county in South Dakota where my grandfather’s brother lived for many years.

Dewey County SD before organization

Rusk County, South Dakota, was created in 1873 from Indian territory.2 But the county was never organized with a formal government before its name was changed, in 1883, to Dewey County.3 Dewey County didn’t get around to organizing its county government for nearly 30 years more. It wasn’t until 1910 that a petition was finally presented to the governor asking that the county be officially organized. An election was held in November 1910, the first officers elected, and Timber Lake chosen as the county seat.4

So… for those 37 years from the creation of Rusk County right up to the organization of Dewey County, where did the settlers out there pay taxes?

You don’t seriously think they got away with not paying taxes, do you? Oh, no. The census takers sometimes might have missed them. The vital records folks might never have heard their names. But trust me on this one: if there was a penny of tax that could be collected, then the tax collectors knew where they lived, what they owned, what it was worth, and how much should be handed over.

So how exactly did that happen? Who even had jurisdiction out there before the counties were organized?

The answer comes in the laws of the territories and states as they formed their new counties.

In the older eastern states, the statutes creating the counties selected officials to get them organized right away. In Virginia, when Rockingham, Rockbridge and Greenbrier Counties were formed in 1777, for example, the statutes creating the counties and changing the borders of others provided for the appointments of sheriffs, for the holding of courts and for the collection of taxes for the new counties.5 The same was true when the North Carolina legislature created Burke County from Rowan County that same year.6

One reason why this was easy to do in the established older states was that there usually were a number of men who had already been commissioned as justices of the peace who resided in the newly-created county and could begin the process of getting the government going with the officials appointed under the statutes creating the county.

Further west, however, new counties were often formed out of no-man’s land. In the Dakota Territory, surveying the land took such a long time that, in some cases, the territorial legislature laid out new counties before the land was even surveyed, and with no real idea who lived where and who might be competent to govern the new county.7

In those western states, the way the new counties were run, then, was to attach them to a county that had a functioning county government. This use of the word is very different from the garden variety legal attachment you’ll come across in court records. There, to attach something means to take something (a person or property) into custody by court order.8 No, when it came to counties, it meant giving the courts and government of one functioning county the right to handle the affairs of the as-yet-unorganized county. And that was done by statute.

In South Dakota, unorganized counties were attached to organized counties by different laws passed at different times. In 1890, for example, the legislature passed a statute attaching 19 counties to seven organized counties “for the purpose of the levy and collection of taxes on property.”9 A later statute provided that Dewey County real estate transactions would be handled by Walworth County.10

In Nebraska in the 1860s, attachment was done by simple grography: “All unorganized counties shall be attached to the nearest organized county directly east of them, for election, judicial and revenue purposes.”11

Michigan attached a newly-created unorganized county to a specific county and provided by law that “Unorganized counties… shall, for every purpose, be deemed to be within the limits of the county” they were attached to.12

Texas also chose specific counties for the unorganized counties to be attached to as they were created, but provided that whatever taxes were collected would be held for the benefit of the unorganized county and handed over when the government was formed.13

And, by the way, there were still some unorganized counties out west as late as the 1980s. And no, I don’t mean places where the county sheriff thought he really was the law. Two South Dakota Counties — Shannon and Washabaugh — were the last unorganized counties in the United States.14

What this all means for us as genealogists is that there’s at least one other place to look for early tax, land and other records for our ancestors who headed west into these unorganized counties: the other county to which their unorganized county was attached. And for places like Shannon County, South Dakota, there still is another place: Shannon contracts with Fall River County to handle the paperwork.15

None of which, of course, explains how Trail City, South Dakota, where my great uncle John lived for many years, managed to migrate from Corson County16 to Dewey County17 in different state censuses when the county lines didn’t change.

I don’t think I’ll find that explained in the statute books…


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Organizing the counties,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 13 Mar 2012 ( : accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  2. South Dakota Counties,” Pierre-Fort Pierre Genealogical Society, via Internet Archive Wayback Machine ( : accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  3. Act of 9 Mar 1833, in Laws Passed at the 15th Session of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Dakota (Yankton, D.T. : Bowen & Kingsbury, Public Printers, 1883), 29; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 Mar 2012).
  4. Dewey County”, South Dakota Association of County Commissioners ( ; accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  5. Virginia Laws of 1777, chapter XVIII, in William Waller Hening, compiler, Hening’s Statutes at Law, Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, 14 vols. (1819-1823; reprint ed., Charlottesville: Jamestown Foundation, 1969), 9: 420-424.
  6. North Carolina Laws of 1777, chapter XIX, in Walter Clark, compiler, State Records of North Carolina, Vol. 24 (Goldsboro, N.C. : Book & Job, 1905), 28-30; online version, “Colonial and State Records of North Carolina,” Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill ( : accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  7. See “Dakota Territory, North Dakota and South Dakota: Commentary,” South Dakota Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, Newberry Library, via Internet Archive Wayback Machine ( : accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  8. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 102, “attach.”
  9. Act of 7 March 1890, § 1, in Laws Passed at the First Session of the Legislature of the State of South Dakota (Pierre, S.D. : State Printers, 1890), 159; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  10. Laws of 1895, chapter 48, § 1, in Edwin L. Graham, compiler, Statutes of the State of South Dakota, 2d Rev. Ed., Vol. 1 (Albany : H. B. Parsons, 1901), 722; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  11. Nebraska Terr. Rev. Stat. Chapter X, § 1 in E. Estabrook, reviser, The Revised Statutes of the Territory of Nebraska, in Force July 1, 1866 (Omaha : E. B. Taylor, state printers, 1866), 45; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  12. Chapter 16, Counties, arts. 455-456, § 19, in Andrew Howell, compiler, The General Statutes of the State of Michigan, Vol. I (Chicago : Callahan & Co., 1882), 195; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  13. Art. 4728a, § 1 & 15, in John Sayles and Henry Sales, ed., Revised Civil Statutes and Laws passed by the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th & 20th Legislatures of the State of Texas, vol. II (St Louis : Gilbert Book Co., 1889), 591-593; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  14. Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota” ( : accessed 2 Feb 2018).
  15. Ibid.
  16. 1915 South Dakota State Census, Corson County, Trail City, card no. 25, John W. Cottrell household; digital image, FamilySearch ( : accessed 16 Oct 2011); citing South Dakota Assessor, “State Census, 1915,” South Dakota Historical Society, Pierre, South Dakota; imaged from FHL microfilm 2283201.
  17. 1925 South Dakota State Census, Dewey County, Trail City, card no. 239, John W. Cottrell household; digital image, FamilySearch ( : accessed 16 Oct 2011); citing South Dakota Assessor, “State Census, 1925,” South Dakota Historical Society, Pierre, South Dakota; imaged from FHL microfilm 2368262.
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