county [Fr., comté, = domain of a count], division of local government in the United States, Great Britain, and many Commonwealth countries. The county developed in England from the shire, a unit of local government that originated in the Saxon settlements of the 5th cent. By the 11th cent. the shire system was fully established throughout most of England, with each shire being ruled by a shire-reeve, or sheriff, appointed by the crown. By the 14th cent. the office of justice of the peace had developed; in each county a court of three or four justices, also appointed by the king, assisted the sheriff in the administration of local affairs. With the passage of the Local Government Act of 1888, power passed from the king's appointed officials to the newly created county councils, elected by local residents. The county system of government was adopted in most of the nations settled by the British.
In the United States there are some 3,100 counties (254 in Texas alone); most are rural or suburban, but except where, as in Virginia, a city may be independent (not part of a county), every part of a state is also part of a county. Some cities, like New York (where the five boroughs are also counties) comprise more than one county. Louisiana, influenced by the French, has instead parishes, which are essentially similar to counties; Alaska has boroughs. The major functions of county government in the United States include law enforcement, the recording of deeds and other documents, and the provision and maintenance of public works such as roads and parks. Some states, though, notably Connecticut, have abolished almost all county governmental functions.
See H. S. Duncombe, County Government in America (1966); J. C. Bollens, American County Government (1969).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.