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Photographer standing near whirlpool rapids below St. Anthony Falls, Minneapolis, 1865

Photographer standing near whirlpool rapids below St. Anthony Falls, Minneapolis, 1865

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  Forms of Local Governments

Minnesota currently has four forms of local governments: counties, cities, towns (townships), and special purpose districts (e.g. school districts, soil conservation districts, hospital districts, regional development commissions, and the Metropolitan Council). The "village" form was abolished by the Minnesota Legislature in 1973 and most villages became cities the following year.


Shortly after Minnesota Territory was organized in 1849, counties left over from the old Wisconsin and Iowa territories were dissolved and nine new counties were established. When Minnesota became a state in 1858 there were 57 counties in place. Today there are 87 counties in Minnesota. The newest one, Lake of the Woods County, was carved out of Beltrami County in 1922. The parent county(ies) may be found on each county information page. The date of a county's establishment is not always concurrent with its organization. Such is the case of Beltrami County, having been established in 1866 but not organized until 1896.

Minnesota Territory Showing the Original Counties

Townships and Towns

Minnesota townships were first established in 1858 following the addition of Minnesota to the union. According to the Minnesota Association of Townships, there are now 1,792 organized townships in Minnesota. A number of townships listed in Minnesota Place Names in the northern part of the state have dissolved, becoming unorganized territories. Many townships in the counties surrounding the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have become cities themselves, a recent example being Grant in Washington County.

The terms "town" and "township" have become increasingly confused over time. Prior to the establishment of townships, the term "town" was used during the days of the Minnesota Territory to designate a locale similar to a village. Many incorporated towns were never established (and were largely "paper towns"), became villages in the 1860s and 1870s, became another extinct form of local government called a borough (Henderson, Le Sueur, New Ulm and Belle Plaine were all one-time boroughs), or dissolved into an unincorporated "hamlet." In the legal sense today, a "town" is the organized government of a "township" (e.g. the Town of Baytown in Baytown Township), not a small city as it was when the state was created.

In the strictest definition, a township is a geographic area established by government survey that is a six by six mile square (36 square miles). These townships are called congressional or survey townships. The organized government of a township is a "town" or civil township. The term "township" to represent both the geographic area and form of government is common, even in state statutes.

The Legislature has created a second class of townships called "urban towns." Urban towns are towns that have platted portions where 1,000 or more people reside or that meet other statutory criteria. These towns have many of the same powers statutory cities have under the city code.


The first cities to be incorporated in Minnesota Territory were Stillwater and St. Paul on March 4, 1854. According to the League of Minnesota Cities, there are 854 cities in the state.

Minnesota has two basic types of cities: statutory cities and home rule charter cities. The main difference between home rule cities and statutory cities is the kind of enabling legislation from which they gain their authority. Statutory cities derive their powers from Chapter 412 of Minnesota Statutes. Home rule cities obtain their powers from a home rule charter. The distinction between home rule cities and statutory cities is one of organization and powers, and is not based on differences in population, size, location, or any other physical feature.

Some Minnesota cities that incorporated prior to July 1, 1949, have never been separated from the township in which they are located. The city is still part of the township for purposes of general town government, town elections, town assessments, and ownership of the town hall and other property. All statutory cities incorporated after July 1, 1949, were automatically separated from the town when they incorporated. All cities in the seven-county metropolitan area, regardless of the date of their incorporation, are separate from the town for election purposes.


  • League of Minnesota Cities. "Chapter 1: Local government in Minnesota" Handbook for Cities. 2000. http://www.lmnc.org/library/handbook.cfm (May 25, 2001).
  • Minnesota Association of Townships. "Chapter 2: Township Government" Manual on Town Government. 2001. http://www.mntownships.org/manualtowngov.html (May 25, 2001).
  • Walker, Harvey. Village Law and Government in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1927.