The Least Populated US Counties

By Nathaniel Whelan on September 30 2020 in World Facts

Outlines of all US counties on the US map. Image credit: Shutterstock.com
  • There are currently 3,007 counties spread out across the country; Texas has 254, while Delaware only has three, the fewest of any US state.
  • Due to its origins as an area to quarantine island lepers, Kalawao County in Hawaii is the least populated county in the United States.
  • Throughout the years, many farmers tried to cultivate the land in Grant County, Nebraska, but failed because of poor soil and harsh winters.
  • It is also interesting to note that Texas and Nebraska make up the majority of the least populated counties in the United States.

In the United States, a county is a specific section of territory that is overseen by a local government. These political bodies exist below the state level and are made up of multiple cities, towns, and smaller rural areas. At the moment, 48 states recognize various counties within their own borders. The other two—Louisiana and Alaska—use parishes and boroughs.

The county seat is considered the administrative center and is usually situated in the largest urban area in the county. Their responsibilities differ from state to state. Some manage local law enforcement, public education, infrastructure maintenance, and taxes. Others even regulate the sale of alcohol. County officials tend to hold any number of other positions, from lawyers and judges, to sheriffs and treasurers.  

There are currently 3,007 counties spread out disproportionately across the country. For example, Texas has 254, while Delaware only has three, the fewest of any US state. The population of each individual county also varies. As of 2019, Los Angeles County was the most populated with approximately ten million residents. This is a significant difference from the bottom ten. The following article explores the least populated counties in the United States.

Kalawao County, Hawaii

Population: 86

Kalawao County is located on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. With a total population of 86 people, it does not have any governmental body or elected officials, just a sheriff appointed by the state. The county is isolated, cut off from the rest of the island because of its strange history. It was once used to quarantine any Hawaiian who’d been diagnosed with leprosy. No new residents are permitted, contributing to its ever-dwindling population. Once the last patient has passed on—there are currently less than a dozen—the state plans to abolish the county entirely.

Loving County, Texas

Population: 169

Loving County is located in the west of Texas and borders New Mexico. It is currently the second least populated county in the United States at 169 people. The county seat is situated in Mentone, a small town with a population of 19. Despite these small numbers, it boasts the highest per capita income of all US counties with $89,471; this is due in part to the oil which was originally discovered in the region in 1922.

King County, Texas

Population: 272

King County is located in Texas. It was named for William Philip King who perished during the Battle of the Alamo. It is the second least populated county in Texas and third in the entire United States. It is primarily known for its beef cattle, an industry that brings in roughly $11.5 million a year. Like most Texas counties, it is also rich in oil, which led to a population surge in the mid-1900s. Since then, its population has declined, largely due to loss of jobs as a result of the mechanization of agriculture.

Kenedy County, Texas

Population: 404

The Kenedy County Courthouse in Sarita. Image credit: Wikimedia.org

Kenedy County is located in southern Texas. It is the thirteenth largest county in the state, but the third least populated. Similar to King County, its population grew due to the discovery of oil in 1947. In the 1970s, however, it started to decrease, dropping from 884 to its current 404 inhabitants. According to the US census, approximately 75 percent of the population is Hispanic. Regardless of race or ethnicity, many of Kenedy County’s residents are loyal to the region, contributing to low mobility rates.   

Arthur County, Nebraska

Population: 463

Arthur County is a square of territory in Nebraska that borders no other state. It was named after the 21st president of the United States, Chester A. Arthur. It has a current population of 463, making it the fifth least populated county on this list. Its position as one of the most rural areas in Nebraska greatly impeded its development. The lack of railroads and bodies of water also contributed to a low population. Unsurprisingly, ranching became its biggest industry.    

Blaine County, Nebraska

Population: 465

Blaine County is located in Nebraska. With a current population of 465 people, it is the sixth least populated county in the United States. It measures 1,850 square kilometers of which only 0.5 percent is water. People began populating the region due to the passing of the Homestead Act of 1862 which granted ranchers 160 acres of land if they spent the following five years cultivating it. This was amended to 640 acres in 1904 to make the deal and land more attractive.

Petroleum County, Montana

Population: 487

Winnett School, Petroleum County, Montana. Image credit: Wikimedia.org

Out of Montana’s 56 counties, Petroleum is the fifteenth smallest. It is also the seventh least populated in the entire United States at 487 residents. It was first established in 1925, although the land originally belonged to various indigenous tribes. Today, approximately 98.8 percent of its population is white. Similar to other counties on this list, oil and cattle raising are its primary industries.

McPherson County, Nebraska

Population: 494

With a population of 494 people, McPherson County is the eighth least populated county in the United States. It was established in 1890 and named after James B. McPherson who served as a general in the Civil War. It used to be significantly bigger, but in 1913, part of it was partitioned off to create Arthur County which now lies directly on its western border. Today, most of the county’s 2,200 square kilometers of land consist of low rolling hills, while only 0.1 percent is water.

Yakutat Borough, Alaska

Population: 579

Formed in 1992, Yakutat is not a county, but a borough that borders a portion of British Columbia, the westernmost Canadian province. It is currently the ninth least populated county-equivalent in the United States with a population of 579 people. It was originally inhabited by the Tlingit people who’ve lived there for hundreds of years. Yakutat is also the name of a small fishing village that acts as the borough seat. With a subarctic climate, its residents endure long, brutal winters.

Grant County, Nebraska

Population: 623

Grant County is the fourth least populated county in Nebraska and tenth in the entire country. It has a current population of 623 people. Established in 1887, it was named after Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States. Early colonizers tried to cultivate the land, but several factors, including poor soil and harsh winters, caused too many issues. Later attempts to attract people with free land worked for a while, but these individuals also failed to farm the land.

Disparity By State

Upon reflection, it becomes apparent that Texas and Nebraska make up the majority of the least populated counties in the United States. But why is this the case?

Texas is the second largest state in the country with the second highest population. The state’s original founders created relatively small local governments in order to keep its residents close by. That is why the Lone Star State has 254 counties in total, 95 more than Georgia, the state with the second most counties.

It’s a little harder to pinpoint a specific reason why Nebraska also dominates this list. A few have already been mentioned above such as remoteness and poor soil, all of which ultimately contributed to a general decline in the state’s rural population over the past ten years.

The 10 Least Populated US Counties

RankCountyPopulation
1Kalawao County, Hawaii86
2Loving County, Texas169
3King County, Texas272
4Kenedy County, Texas404
5Arthur County, Nebraska463
6Blaine County, Nebraska465
7Petroleum County, Montana487
8McPherson County, Nebraska494
9Yakutat Borough, Alaska579
10Grant County, Nebraska623

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