History & Facts of North Dakota Counties

North Dakota County records vary widely from county to county in both quality and quantity. Some have been carefully preserved while others have been much abused and neglected. Some North Dakota records have simply disappeared. For genealogists doing research in North Dakota there is no effective replace for an on-site search of county courthouse records.

North Dakota is divided into 53  counties. North Dakota is located in the northwest region of the central part of the United States. Although its largest city is Fargo, its capital city is Bismarck. It shares its eastern border with Minnesota and its western border with Montana. As the name suggests, South Dakota shares its southern border, while Canada borders it to the north. North Dakota is known as a "plains state" and most of the state is economically supported by its agricultural industries.

The fur trading industry was the first industry practiced by North Dakota's early European settlers. However, the farming industry took over after multiple Native American wars and skirmishes and after the railroad came to the area. Although, it is important to note that North Dakota prairie farming has not always been an economically sound industry. In fact, North Dakota farmers have repeatedly expressed their resentment of the fact that wheat prices, transportation, and storage of grain have all been greatly controlled by outsiders and the charges for those services have been too high, at least in the opinions of the farmers.

North Dakota became a territory in 1861. At that time, it was named after the Dakota Indian tribe that lived in the region. On November 2, 1889, Dakota Territory was split into two sections and North Dakota gained its statehood. The residents chose to keep its name when that happened.

North Dakota Counties

From the time that each county in North Dakota was formed, records were kept on the county level. Many of those records still exist today. However, not all of them are entirely accurate. So, researchers may need to cross-reference certain information. Some of the record locations are as follows: County Judge - Probate and Marriage Records; Clerk of the District Court - Civil Court Records; Register of Deeds - Land Records.

The State Archives and Historical Research Library has copies of some of those records on file, but new records are continuously being transferred there. So, researchers are better off to begin by contacting the appropriate county office by letter. Letters will be transferred, in cases where the records have already been moved. Letters may often be addressed to the county office in care of the county courthouse. A Historical Records Survey of North Dakota is housed at the FHL. It is a bit outdated, but can still be a useful guide for researchers.

County Date Formed (Organized) Parent County County Seat
Adams April 17, 1907 Stark County Hettinger
Barnes January 14, 1875 Cass County Valley City
Benson March 09, 1883 Ramsey County Minnewaukan
Billings February 10, 1879 (1886) Dakota Territory Medora
Bottineau January 04, 1873 (1884) Dakota Territory Bottineau
Bowman March 08, 1883 (1907) Billings County Bowman
Burke July 06, 1910 Ward County Bowbells
Burleigh January 04, 1873 Buffalo County Bismarck
Cass January 04, 1873 Dakota Territory Fargo
Cavalier January 04, 1874 (1884) Pembina County Langdon
Dickey March 05, 1881 La Moure County Ellendale
Divide Dec 09, 1910 Williams County Crosby
Dunn May 24, 1901 (1908) Starner and Mercer Counties Manning
Eddy March 09, 1885 Foster County New Rockford
Emmons February 10, 1879 Burleigh County and Campbell County, SD Linton
Foster January 04, 1873 (1883) Pembina County Carrington
Golden Valley November 19, 1912 Billings County Beach
Grand Forks January 04, 1873 (1875) Pembina County Grand Forks
Grant November 25, 1916 Morton County Carson
Griggs February 18, 1881 Foster, Burbank and Traill Counties Cooperstown
Hettinger March 09, 1883; May 24, 1901 (1907) Stark County Mott
Kidder January 04, 1873 (1881) Buffalo County Steele
LaMoure January 04, 1873 Pembina County LaMoure
Logan January 04, 1873 (1884) Buffalo County Napoleon
McHenry January 04, 1873 (1885) Buffalo County Towner
McIntosh March 09, 1883 (1884) Logan County Ashley
McKenzie May 24, 1901 (1905) Stark County Watford City
McLean March 08, 1883 Dakota Territory Washburn
Mercer January 14, 1875 Dakota Territory Stanton
Morton January 08, 1878 (1881) Dakota Territory Mandan
Mountrail January 04, 1871 Ward County Stanley
Nelson March 09, 1883 Foster and Grand Forks Counties Lakota
Oliver March 12, 1885 Mercer County Center
Pembina January 09, 1867 Indian lands Cavalier
Pierce March 11, 1887 (1889) DeSmet (Old), Bottineau, McHenry and Rolette Counties Rugby
Ramsey January 04, 1873 Pembina County Devils Lake
Ransom January 04, 1873 (1881) Pembina County Lisbon
Renville June 3, 1910 Ward County Mohall
Richland January 04, 1873 (1875) Pembina County Wahpeton
Rolette January 04, 1873 (1884) Buffalo County Rolla
Sargent March 03, 1883 Ransom County Forman
Sheridan December 24, 1908 McLean County McClusky
Sioux January 14, 1915 Standing Rock Reservation Fort Yates
Slope November 3, 1914 (1915) Billings County Amidon
Stark February 10, 1879 (1883) Dakota Territory Dickinson
Steele March 08, 1883 Grand Forks, Griggs Finley
Stutsman January 04, 1873 Pembina County Jamestown
Towner March 08, 1883 (1884) Rolette and Cavalier Counties Cando
Traill January 12, 1875 Grand Forks, Burbank and Cass Counties Hillsboro
Walsh February 18, 1881 Grand Forks County Grafton
Ward April 14, 1885 Bottineau, Renville (old) and Stevens (old) Counties Minot
Wells February 26, 1881 (1884) renamed from Gringras County Fessenden
Williams January 08, 1873 (1903) Dakota Territory Williston

North Dakota Extinct Counties

North Dakota has counties that no longer exist. They were established by the state, provincial, or territorial government. Most of these counties were created and disbanded in the 19th century; county boundaries have changed little since 1900 in the vast majority of states. These counties need to be looked at when doing genealogy research. Pay close attention where the courthouse records went to if the county was abolished or combined with another county.

  • Allred County - In 1896 Allred became a part of Billings; in 1901 Allred was re-created from Billings County; in 1903 it was attached to Williams County; and in 1905 it was abolished when it became part of McKenzie County.
  • Buffalo County was created in 1864 and organized in 1871. In 1873 Buffalo lost land to twenty-five counties in Dakota territory; in 1889 Buffalo became a county in the newly created state of South Dakota.
  • Buford County was created in 1883. In 1891 Buford was attached to Ward County; in 1892 it was abolished and became part of Williams County.
  • Burbank County was created in 1873, renamed to Barnes County in 1875
  • French County was created in 1873 from Buffalo County; renamed De Smet County in 1875, eliminated in 1875.
  • Dunn County (old) was created in 1883 from Howard Co and became part of Stark Co, 1896
  • Flannery County was created in 1883 from Wallette Co . In 1891 Flannery was attached to Ward Co; in 1892 it was abolished and became part of Williams Co.
  • Gringras County was created in 1873 from Buffalo County and renamed Wells County in 1881
  • Howard County was created in 1873 from unorganized area; abolished 1883; became part of Allred, Dunn, McKenzie and Wallace Counties
  • McKenzie County (old) was created in 1883 from Howard County; abolished 1896; became part of Billings County in 1897
  • Pembina County, Minnesota Territory (1849-1858, reconstituted as Pembina County, Dakota Territory in 1861, eventually reduced to present-day Pembina County, North Dakota.)
  • Renville County (old) was created in 1873 from Buffalo County; attached to Ward, 1891; abolished 1892; became part of Bottineau and Ward Counties
  • Sheridan County (old) was created in 1873 from Buffalo County; abolished 1892; became part of McLean County
  • Stevens County was created in 1873 from Buffalo County; The original Stevens County was created in 1862 from unorganized land but was abolished in 1863. This Stevens County was attached to Ward in 1891 and was abolished in 1892 when it became part of McLean and Ward Counties.
  • Wallace County was created in 1883 from Howard County; In 1896 Wallace was abolished and became part of Billings and Stark; in 1901 it was re-created from Billings and Stark but remained attached to Stark; in 1905 it was abolished again and became part of McKenzie County.
  • Wallette County was created in 1873 from Buffalo County; abolished 1883; became part of Buford and Flannery Counties
  • Wynn County was created in 1883 from Bottineau County and Renville County (old); was eliminated in 1887.

North Dakota Counties with Burned Courthouses

The damage to courthouses greatly has a bearing on genealogists in every way. No only are these historic structures torn from our lifetimes, so are the records they housed: marriage, wills, probate, land records, and others. Once destroyed they're lost forever. Although they have been placed on mircofilm, computers and film burn too. The most heartbreaking side of this is the reason that nearly all of our courthouses are destroyed at the hands of arsonist. Although, not all records were lost. Many North Dakota counties have suffered a loss of records due to courthouse fires, floods, and theft.

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