History of Clay County

Breckenridge County

Clay County, located along the west border of Minnesota, was established in 1858 as Breckenridge County, named for John C. Breckenridge, Vice President of the United States from 1857-1861.

Minnesota Map Showing Clay County

Minnesota Governor Ramsey appointed the 1st county commissioners in 1861: R. M. Probstfield, Richard Manning and George Northrup. Today, the county is represented by 5 commissioners.

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After the Civil War started, Breckenridge joined the army of the South. Pressure by Minnesota residents resulted in the State Legislature of Minnesota passing a bill on March 6, 1862, rescinding the name of Breckenridge. The county was then renamed for Henry Clay (1777-1852). Clay was known as a statesman and orator, and called "The Great Pacificator".

Moorhead, Minnesota

In 1871, a decision was made to have the Northern Pacific Railroad cross the Red River at the present site of Moorhead. The railroad bought Job Smith's land, platted a townsite, offered lots for sale, and named the town Moorhead.

Moorhead was designated the county seat on June 1, 1872, and a county building was built at 5th Street and 1st Avenue North. Today, the fountain in the Moorhead Center Mall is located in about the same spot where the 1st Clay County Courthouse once stood. The first courthouse was sold in 1878.

Second Courthouse

In 1878 a 2nd courthouse was built at 8th Street and 1st Avenue North at a cost of $2,136. Plans for this courthouse set off the fight for the county seat in 1879. Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers tore down the 2nd courthouse in the mid 1930s. A 3rd courthouse was built in 1882 on the eastern half of the present site at 11th Street and 8th Avenue North. The cost of that building was $50,000. The building cost of the present courthouse, which was built in 1954, was $704,000.

County Seat Fight a Bitter Struggle

Read about the battle for the location of the county seat in the article County Seat Fight a Bitter Struggle by Mark Peihl. This copyrighted article first appeared in the September / October 2001 edition of the Clay County Historical Society Newsletter. It is reprinted here with his permission.

The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County has further information relating to the history of Clay County, Minnesota.

Photos and information regarding the early Clay County Courthouses are courtesy of Mark Peihl, Archivist, Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.