Excerpt from “Valley 101: A Slightly Skewed Guide to Living in Arizona,” a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published February 18, 2001.)
Q: I’m from Indiana, and this is my question: Why are Arizona counties so big?
A: When we first read your question, we were a bit nonplussed, but this is not too surprising because we here at Valley 101 are rather easily nonplussed. Then we remembered we left our pluss in our other pants, and, reassured, we set about to learn the answer.
First, some history:
After Arizona became a U.S. territory in 1863, four counties were created—Mojave, Pima, Yuma and Yavapai. A fifth county, Pah-Ute, was claimed — and taxed — by both Arizona and Nevada, with Nevada emerging as the winner. Maricopa County was created in 1871, and others came along over time when need arose. When statehood was won in 1912, the state Constitution allowed for 14 counties, and this was the case until 1983, when La Paz County
was carved out of northern Yuma County because people there were tired of driving so far to Yuma to do official business, a plight with which we can sympathize.
Anyway, we do indeed have big counties. Maricopa County, at 9,222 square miles, is bigger than Massachusetts, and Coconino County is almost twice as big as Maricopa.
Look at it this way: Why would we need smaller counties? What or who would they govern? Gila monsters?
Indiana, which has a population density of about 154 people per square mile, has 92 counties. Arizona has something like 35 people per square mile and the aforementioned 15 counties. With numbers like that, smaller administrative units wouldn’t make sense. If we cut Arizona up into 92 counties, we’d end up with a lot of teeny-tiny counties with hardly anyone in them. Plus, it would be hard to think up all those county names, although if any new counties ever were to be created, we would modestly suggest that Thompsonia would make a dandy name.