October 29, 2022 | Last updated Jul 6, 2023

Nebraska’s “Ghost” Counties

It seems that one incorrect map led to more than a decade of confusion regarding six nonexistent counties in Western Nebraska. How did such a mistake happen?

In the Winter 2014 issue of Nebraska History, Brian P. Croft explores the origins of Nebraska’s county boundaries, real and imagined. After Nebraska became a territory in 1854, the legislature quickly began organizing counties. Nebraska’s original eight counties had become forty by 1861, when the expansion slowed due to the Civil War. County creation picked up again following Nebraska’s statehood in 1867, and the map business was competitive as commercial printers strove to keep up with the changes. In mid-1867, the well-known Colton firm published Colton’s Township Map of the State of Nebraska, which showed the counties of Lyon, Taylor, Monroe, Harrison, Jackson, and Grant. Collectively, the six counties covered almost one-fifth of the state’s land.

detail of 1870 map

Map and detail: One of the many maps that copied the fake counties of Lyon, Taylor, Monroe, Harrison, Jackson, and Grant. (Courtesy of Colin and Brian Croft)


There was just one problem: those counties were never legally established.

But the Coltons weren’t simply making up boundaries. The map follows the exact guidelines of a bill called H.R. 104 that passed in February of 1867. It was then sent to Governor Alvin Saunders. But for some reason Saunders never signed it, and his pocket veto meant that, legally, the western third of Nebraska remained blank. General Land Office maps do not show the six counties, and there are no records of them with the County Clerk.

But once the counties appeared on the Colton map, other maps began to copy them. The more times the mistake was repeated, the more legitimate the counties seemed. The map even caused errors in the 1870 census. The Colton firm didn’t remove all six from their maps until 1873, and some of the “ghost” counties appear on other maps as late as 1877.

The mystery of how the fake counties originated was not solved until Croft discovered the handwritten manuscript of H.R. 104 at the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Government Records facility. The NSHS is the state’s official archive, preserving legislative records and governors’ papers from the territorial days to the present.

– Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant, Publications

Read entire article, “Mapping Nebraska, 1866-1871: County Boundaries, Real and Imagined” (PDF)


detail of detail

Zooming in even more, the map also follows Colton in placing Julesburg, Colorado, in Nebraska. The error even fooled census workers in 1870!

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