From Adair to Wright, How Iowa’s 99 counties got their names

By Michael Swanger


Politicians consider it a rite of passage on the campaign trail to visit Iowa’s 99 counties and Iowans might travel through all of them if they live here long enough. Still, how many people know the stories behind the names of Iowa counties?


We at Iowa History Journal asked ourselves the same question, then found the answers to share with you so that while traveling through Iowa, or glancing at the county name on the license plate of the vehicle in front of you in traffic, you can recall a piece of Iowa history.


Most of Iowa’s 99 counties are named after American Indian chiefs and tribes, decorated soldiers, politicians from the East and our rivers. In some cases, county names are disputed, or attributed to multiple origins as the result of folklore.


With that said, multiple sources abound. We found the book “From Ackley to Zwingle: A collection of the origins of Iowa place names,” written by Harold Dilts, Kathleen Ann Dilts and Linda Jo Dilts, to be the most comprehensive and accessible. The majority of the information provided in this story is attributed to the book, whose authors did the painstaking research to gather and write it. We also found the state’s official website to be another important source of information.


For those who want to know more about each county’s history, read the “What’s in a Name?” story in every issue of Iowa History Journal that features an Iowa town and includes a sidebar about the history of the county, or counties, in which it’s located.


Adair County was named in honor of Gen. John Adair from South Carolina. He was a soldier in the Revolutionary and Indian Wars and an officer in the War of 1812. He was also the governor of Kentucky.


Adams County was named for John Adams, the second President of the United States.


Allamakee County was named after Allan Makee, an early American Indian trader and trapper in the area, though some say that the county’s name is of American Indian origin.


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