Independent Cities of the United States

My eldest son was born in Portsmouth, Virginia and when he was getting ready to go to school for the first time, I had to amend his birth certificate to include the name of his father. In the process, I was asked what county that my son live in and in my search I discovered that Portsmouth, Virginia was not a city within a county, but was an independent city. I learned that Portsmouth wasn't the only independent city in the United States either. Virginia currently has 38 independent cities..

Arlington may look like a city, but it is actually a county in Virginia
Arlington may look like a city, but it is actually a county in Virginia

Independent Cities in Virginia

As I was doing my research, I discovered that 38 independent cities grace the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since 1871 when the State revised its constitution after the Civil War, all cities in Virginia have also been independent cities. These cities are politically not part of the county although they may be surrounded by county. some of these cities, however,do serve as the county seat of the county that surrounds them. Less populated municipalities are incorporated towns that are part of the county and have limited powers based on their municipal charters. These towns share aspects of governmental control with their associated counties such as court systems and public schools.

Two classes of cities exist.a first class city like Portsmouth has its own General District Court and its own Circuit Court a Second-class city like Falls Church has its own District Court, but not Circuit Court. Falls Church, for instance shares the Circuit court with Arlington county. All jury trials in Virginia are heard in a Circuit Court.

The three oldest Virginia counties were formed in 1634 in the Colony of Virginia and have the word city in their names, but function politically as counties. The independent cities were created for legal reasons and to centralize trading because the practice of merchant ships cruising form plantation to plantation was not cost effective. Williamsburg was the first city to be created for this reason and became the port city on the James River.

Arlington is not an independent city, but is actually a county. It is however, about the geographic size and density of a fully urbanized city. It does not contain a city within its borders. This county has a unique distinction along with the City of Alexandra, Virginia in that it was ceded by Virginia to the Federal Government to create Washington, D.C. and then later retroceded back o Virginia in 1846.

Some former independent cities no longer exist. Bedford, now part of Bedford County (2013), Clifton Forge, now part of Allegheny County (2001), and Manchester now part of the City of Richmond (1910). South Boston gave up its city charter in 1994, now part of Halifax County, South Norfolk joined Norfolk county and created the City of Chesapeake. Nansemond became Nansemond County in 1972 then incorporated the city of Suffolk and three other towns to become the City of Suffolk. The independent city of Warwick was created from Warwick county in 1952 and then in 1958 was absorbed into the city of City of Newport News.


Independent Cities Outside of Virginia

Independent cities are relatively rare outside of Virginia because counties are stronger politically than independent city government. The United States Census Bureau uses counties as their basis for representation and treats independent cities as equal to county seats.


Baltimore, MD is the largest Independent city in the U.S.
Baltimore, MD is the largest Independent city in the U.S.

Baltimore, Maryland

The most densely populated independent city in the United States is not in Virginia.Baltimore has

a density of 9108 people per square mile. Maryland separated from Baltimore County in 1851.


St. Louis


St Louis, seceded from St. Louis county in March 1877 and became an independent city thus limiting the county's political power. St Louis is located in Missouri along the Mississippi river has a population of 318,069 and is the 58th largest United States city.


Carson City, Nevada

Ormsby County, Nevada consolidated with Carson City making Carson City an independent city.

© 2013 Donna Brown

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Comments 3 comments

M K Paul profile image

M K Paul 2 years ago from India

good and informative


DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

DrBill-WmL-Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

Curious. Interesting. Thanks for sharing! Merry Christmas! ;-)


cygnetbrown profile image

cygnetbrown 2 years ago from Alton, Missouri Author

Thanks, DrBill-WmL=Smith! Merry Christmas to you and yours as well!

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