Ohio: Commentary

Ohio Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor and Historical Compiler; Douglas Knox, Digital Project Editor; Emily Kelley, Research Associate; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2007

The land that makes up the modern state of Ohio was originally claimed by Virginia under its 1609 charter and was part of Virginia’s Illinois County from 1778 to 1784. Connecticut also used its colonial charter to claim part of Ohio from the Revolutionary War to 1800: the Western Reserve in the northeastern part of the state. From 1787 until 1803, when Ohio attained statehood and its state boundaries were settled, it was part of the Northwest Territory. In the nineteenth century, Indiana Territory, and later, Michigan Territory, claimed part of present Ohio along its northern border

Ohio Land Subdivisions

Ohio was the first state carved out of the Northwest Territory. The subdivision of Ohio lands differed markedly from the other states that were later created from the Territory. All those states (Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) were surveyed using the rectangular Public Land Survey System (PLSS) established by the federal Land Ordinance of 1785; Ohio lacks a comparable uniformity because it was the subject of nine major, different land surveys. Eight of those nine surveys are based in principle on a rectangular system, but their diverse numbering systems and variations in township size make a crazy quilt of most of Ohio. The northwestern quarter of the state is the only area of Ohio where the PLSS was implemented. The different systems complicate any attempt to understand county creation in Ohio, especially in the cases where county boundaries traverse different survey subdivisions.

Some subdivisions are the results of claims made by colonies on land north of the Ohio River. One of these, the Virginia Military District, covers parts of twenty-three counties in southwestern Ohio. When Virginia ceded its claim to lands north of the Ohio River, it reserved the Military District to settle military bounty land warrants it had issued to pay veterans for service in the Revolutionary War. Surveying by metes and bounds, common in Virginia, was continued in the District, which is the only part of Ohio not surveyed on some sort of rectangular system.

Based on the English Crown’s charter to the colony of Connecticut in the 1600s, the state of Connecticut claimed land in present Ohio between 41 degrees and 42 degrees, 2 minutes north latitude. In 1786, Connecticut ceded its charter claims to lands north of the Ohio River and west of Pennsylvania to the United States, but retained an area in northeastern Ohio—Connecticut’s Western Reserve—that extended 120 miles westward from the Pennsylvania line. Connecticut never created counties or established a governmental presence in the Western Reserve; in 1800, the state ceded the Reserve to the United States and it became part of the Northwest Territory.

The Western Reserve was divided into townships five miles square, rather than the six-mile-square townships that are standard in the PLSS. The demarcation of the southern and western boundaries caused some confusion in the establishment of county boundaries. Connecticut defined the Western Reserve’s southern line as the parallel of 41 degrees north latitude, and the western limit as a line running north-south through a point 120 miles west of Pennsylvania. Both lines, as surveyed, depart somewhat from this description: the western line is slightly more than 120 miles west of Pennsylvania, and the southern boundary slightly south of 41 degrees north latitude. Early laws that defined the lines as running along the southern or western boundaries of the Western Reserve have been mapped according to the surveyed lines, rather than the presumed lines of latitude and longitude.

The Ohio-Michigan Boundary

The dispute over the location of the Ohio-Michigan line, which eventually led to the so-called “Toledo War,” has been described in detail in the secondary literature, and a number of these works are included in the bibliography. Michigan struggled to secure the boundary as described in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and in the act creating Michigan Territory in 1805: a line running due east-west from the southernmost tip of Lake Michigan. This definition conflicted with the description written into Ohio’s 1802 state constitution, which provided for running a line to “the most northerly cape of the Miami Bay” (art. 7, sec. 6). Ohioans, worried that available maps were incorrect, feared that Michigan would gain Maumee Bay and the fledgling city of Toledo when surveyors later marked the line. Their concern was well founded, for nearly all available contemporary maps incorrectly placed the southern tip of Lake Michigan north of its actual location. Various surveys were taken, but neither side was willing to compromise. For years Michigan Territory actually controlled Toledo and the area along the boundary, and it created four counties that extended into the disputed territory.

While Michigan Territory exercised jurisdiction in the disputed area, Ohio, as a full-fledged state, was able to marshal more political influence in Congress and prevented Michigan from attaining statehood while the boundary controversy remained unresolved. Finally, the combination of congressional pressure and the desire of many Michigan residents to attain statehood resulted in an extra-legal convention of Michigan citizens, held in Ann Arbor in December 1836, that accepted Ohio’s version of the line. Congress acted immediately to admit Michigan to the Union, thus ending the dispute in Ohio’s favor.

County Creation and Change

Nearly all of Ohio’s pre-statehood counties were created by proclamation of the governor of the Northwest Territory, but subsequent creations were the result of legislative enactments. Only an 1874 boundary change between Highland and Brown Counties occurred without direct legislative action.

The Indian presence in Ohio also affected the development of counties. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 specifically forbade the creation of counties in areas where the federal government had not extinguished the Indian title to the land, but this restriction was not always observed. The Northwest Territory and the state of Ohio both created counties in northwestern Ohio without regard to Indian land claims (for example, Franklin, Greene, Montgomery, and Wayne [Northwest Territory]). On the other hand, the well-known Greenville Treaty Line (1795) defined the limits of several counties in the nineteenth century, and remnants of the line continue to serve as county boundaries today. Except for a few small reserves, all Indian claims in Ohio were extinguished by the Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818.

Beginning in 1808 with the creation of Stark and Wayne Counties, Ohio began to distinguish between unorganized and fully organized counties. This system of county creation, which became widespread throughout the Midwest, produced some counties that did not carry out governmental functions on their own but were attached to fully organized counties for official services. Inhabitants of unorganized counties had to travel to the seat of the host county to probate wills, enter land transactions, and conduct other county business. This dependent status allowed the new county time to gain sufficient population, organize elections, and prepare to take on the judicial and administrative duties of county government. For some counties unorganized status lasted only a month, while for others it lasted more than a decade. Paulding County remained unorganized the longest, attached first to Wood County and then to Williams County for a total of nineteen years. Since attachments sometimes changed, as in the case of Paulding County, it is possible for records on an individual living in an initially unorganized county to be found in several different counties, even though the person never moved.

A further complication is the variety of relationships that could exist between organized and unorganized counties. In most cases in Ohio, no specific purpose for the attachment is stated in the state session laws. Sometimes the reason for the attachment is stated in the law—“for judicial purposes” being the most common. While it is beyond the scope of this work to define the precise meaning of each phrase at various points in time, the shifts in terminology may be important for researchers. Therefore, when the purpose of the attachment is stated in the law, it is quoted in both the consolidated chronology and the individual county chronologies (e.g., “for judicial purposes”). When no specific purpose for the attachment is stated, the phrase for administrative and judicial purposes is given without quotation marks.

The1810 and 1820 federal censuses for Ohio did not enumerate unorganized counties separately. Unorganized counties were apparently included with their host county. Unorganized counties are thus not generally mentioned by name, except for two instances in 1820. In subsequent federal censuses, the distinction between organized and unorganized counties was not observed, and all counties were enumerated separately, regardless of their organizational status.

Lack of geographical knowledge, carelessness, unclear wording and punctuation, and an inattention to earlier legislation are common in the boundary legislation of many states, but Ohio’s county boundary legislation ranks among the most accurate and unambiguously worded in the nation. The accuracy of Ohio laws is all the more remarkable when one considers the multiple land subdivisions in the state, which certainly increased the chance for errors. This means that most historical Ohio county configurations can be drawn with a high degree of accuracy; few descriptions are open to multiple interpretations.

One oversight involves the Seneca Gore, a small triangular area in the southeast corner of Seneca County. Seneca County was created 1 April 1820 and attached to Sandusky County. Its eastern border is a line dividing two different surveying systems, one extending east from the Indiana line, and the other running west from the Pennsylvania line (the western boundary of the Firelands). Seneca County, as originally defined, included ranges 13 to 17 east in townships 1 to 3 north. Overlooked in this description was the fractional range 18 east—the Seneca Gore. The legislature never passed a law correcting this oversight, although the clear intention was to include all territory up to the western boundary of the Firelands in Seneca County, including fractional range 18 east. This is confirmed by the action of Sandusky County officials who on 25 April 1820 created Thompson Township. The township included part of Seneca County, and its eastern boundary was clearly defined as the line of the Firelands, thus including the Seneca Gore in Thompson Township and Seneca County.

A second minor discrepancy involves an area of one square mile between Morgan and Washington Counties—section 11 in township 8, range 12—which appears to have been accidentally overlooked. Morgan gained territory from Washington on 11 March 1845 and again on 14 February 1846. As a result of these two boundary changes, section 11, which was part of Washington County prior to 1845, technically was completely surrounded by Morgan County. This oversight was never formally remedied, and the compiler has chosen to correct it as of 1 April 1851, when Morgan again gained from Washington and the present county line was established.

A look at a present-day county map of Ohio reveals a number of county lines in the southwestern part of the state that look as if they should run due north-south, but actually tilt somewhat east of due north. The county creation laws specify a “north line” or a “due north line,” but the lines as surveyed in the early nineteenth century did not make sufficient allowance for the variation of magnetic north (indicated by the surveyor’s compass needle) from true north, thus the eastward slant. A number of these lines were resurveyed over the years, but in most cases the lines were not corrected to run to geographical north. One exception is the line between Highland and Brown Counties. The county commissioners of the two counties agreed to a resurvey in 1874, and the line was rotated counter-clockwise to run closer to due north. This was the only county boundary change uncovered in Ohio that took place outside the legislative process, although the authorization for such a resurvey was given to county commissioners by an 1852 law (Ohio Laws 1852, 50th assy., gen., pp. 134–135). In this digital atlas, the compiler has mapped these early county boundaries according to the lines as surveyed, rather than following a literal interpretation of the wording of the legislation.


Research on early Ohio laws was facilitated by the three-volume Statutes of Ohio and of the Northwestern Territory, Adopted or Enacted from 1788 to 1833 Inclusive… (1833–1835), edited by Salmon P. Chase, who later served as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. This careful re-publication of territorial and state laws missed only one county boundary change involving Hamilton and Washington Counties on 11 February 1792. Citations to Chase are included in the consolidated chronology and the individual county chronologies as an aid to users who may find Chase’s compilation easier to locate than early nineteenth-century session laws.

Collections of pertinent sections of county boundary laws are convenient but demand caution. There is a potential for error in transcription, as well as the possibility that valuable information (e.g., an effective date) may be lost in the editorial process of excerpting the selected passages. Such a compilation can be a marvelous convenience for the researcher, once it has been checked against the session laws and has been found reliable. There are compilations of county creations and changes for a number of states, but they vary greatly in content and in accuracy. It is virtually impossible to judge their reliability until much of the work has been replicated. These secondary compilations, therefore, are useful chiefly as guides to the primary laws, proclamations, and decisions. The “Evolution of Ohio County Boundaries” by Randolph Chandler Downes in Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly (1927) proved to be a generally reliable secondary source for Ohio boundary changes, although the laws are paraphrased and not reproduced in full. Even though Downes conducted extensive research and correspondence in the course of his work, the compiler of this digital atlas arrived at different interpretations and depictions of a few county lines.

In addition to Downes’s work, some other secondary sources were particularly valuable in the compilation of Ohio county boundaries. The Ohio Cooperative Topographic Survey, Final Report, volumes 1 and 3 (reprint, 1972); William E. Peters’s Ohio Lands and Their History (1930); and his article, “Tells Strange Story of Ohio’s Lost Lands,” from the 21 December 1924 issue of the Athens [Ohio] Messenger were important for understanding the various land survey systems used in Ohio, the boundary controversy with Michigan, and some oddities of county creation.

Among the most useful modern sources are the large-scale (two miles to the inch), up-to-date county maps produced by the Ohio Department of Transportation. These maps include individual surveyed sections and were an important resource for boundaries, roads, natural features, and other landmarks.

One contemporary map deserves special mention. Benjamin Hough and Alexander Bourne’s famous 1815 Map of the State of Ohio from Actual Survey is a large-scale (five miles to the inch), beautifully detailed work depicting all counties through early 1815, plus section lines and numbered land lots in the area between the Little Miami and Scioto Rivers. While there are a few minor errors on this map, it served as an important check against the compiler’s mapping. The Newberry Library’s collection of nineteenth-century county landownership maps, which were very popular in Ohio, was useful for identifying roads, civil townships, and areas where small changes occurred or were proposed.