Big Stone County, MN

big stone lake

Courthouse Hours

Monday - Friday
   8:00am - 4:00pm

Courthouse Address

   Big Stone County
   20 2nd St SE
   Ortonville, MN 56278

Location and Area:

Big Stone County is situated on the western border of the State almost midway between the north and south boundaries. It has Traverse County and a part of Stevens County on the north, Stevens and Swift Counties on the east, Lac qui Parle County and the Minnesota River on the south, and the Minnesota River, Big Stone Lake and the State of South Dakota on the west. The county has a total area of 522 square miles of which 31 are water.

Physical Features:

Big Stone Lake on the western edge of the county, and Lake Traverse, just north of it, lie in the valley channeled by the River Warren which, toward the close of the last glacial epoch, flowed from glacial Lake Agassiz. The part of the ancient watercourse between these two lakes, a distance of five miles, is called Brown’s Valley. (This valley forms the lowest point of a continental divide.) The waters of Lake Traverse reach Hudson Bay through the Bois de Sioux River, the Red River of the North, Lake Winnipeg, and the Nelson River. The drainage from Lake Traverse reaches the Gulf of Mexico through the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.

The greater part of Big Stone County is a rolling prairie of till plain with a clay loam soil dotted with several small lakes. A morainic belt in the northwestern part of the county leads southward near Beardsley to Big Stone Village, where it continues on the South Dakota side of the lake re-entering Minnesota in the southern part of Big Stone County is mainly to the Minnesota River except in the northeast corner of the county where it tends toward the Mustinka River and through the stream to the Red River of the North.

The natural drainage lines are imperfect and are supplemented by large ditches that have been dug along highways. Part of the Minnesota Valley in the county is too wet for cultivation. Ledges of granite are found in the valley not far from Big Stone Lake. There are also many boulders.

Big Stone Lake is 26 miles long and from one to one and a half miles wide. Although called a lake, it is really a widened part of the Minnesota River. There were more than 50 lakes in the county in the early eighties but many have dried up, and recent maps show only a few. The largest are Artichoke and Toqua. The Minnesota River, rising in the coteau of western South Dakota, enters the State of Minnesota near Browns Valley village, flows into Big Stone Lake at its northern end and out of the lake at the southern extremity.


Scientists declare that men lived on the shores of Big Stone Lake and Lake Traverse nearly twelve thousand years ago. A skeleton, thought by some investigators to be that of one of these people, was exhumed from a gravel pit in Browns Valley Village a few miles north of the Big Stone County line, in 1934. It is known as "The Browns Valley Man". With the skeletons, were six beautiful flint artifacts of the oldest type that has been classified in America.

Evidences of a more recent prehistoric occupancy of Big Stone County by an Indian-like race are plentiful. Overlooking the lower part of Big Stone Lake, scattered along the Minnesota River below the foot of the lake, and on a prominence near Artichoke Lake, are a number of artificial mounds of earth which have been scientifically surveyed and mapped. Most of these mounds are round and of considerable size and some are flat-topped. Features of the fortified site 60 feet above the river at Odessa are an embankment 722 feet long and 20 feet wide with a height of 1½ to 2 feet, and a diamond-shaped mound varying from 42 to 54 feet in diameter, with a flat top, 20 X 28 feet.

Early Settlement:

Following the Indian outbreak, western Minnesota was practically deserted, except for soldiers, stationed at various points, who patrolled the frontier to protect the settlements farther east. Sioux bands of Sisseton and Wahpeton continued for some years to wander over the nearby Dakota prairies to which they had fled. Fear of all Indians was intense. Even had the settlers been sufficiently courageous to homes in the deserted area, they could not have obtained land titles because no surveys had been made.

Settlement of the Big Stone area was accordingly delayed. There were but six houses in the county on August 13, 1870. The population consisted of two families with young children, two young couples, a bachelor living alone, and a widow whose children varied in age from a baby to two sons approaching their majority. The last-named family had a young woman helper. Of the adults, two were born in Massachusetts, two in Wisconsin, one in Kentucky, one in Tennessee, and five in Norway. Eight of the minors were born in Minnesota, five in Tennessee. Government surveys were made in 1871 and 1872. People then came in gradually, but even as late as the spring of 1875 there were only 85 families in the county. The influx of settlement that followed that date increased the population to 8731 at the close of the next quarter century.


Big Stone was established as a county by an act of the Legislature in 1862. No attempt to organize a county government was made until 1873, when Gov. Horace Austin appointed three commissioners for that purpose. These appointed commissioners did nothing, and in March 1874, Gov. C. K. Davis appointed three others who met and named a chairman and an auditor. At their second meeting on July 20, 1874, other county officers were appointed, the boundaries of three commissioner districts were laid out, and the county seat was located at Ortonville. Soon afterward four election precincts were established. A full set of county officers, with the exception of a clerk of the district court, was elected in the fall of 1874. The county continued to function until the men elected in the fall of 1876 took office at the beginning of 1877. As a test of the validity of the county organization, suits were brought to oust these officers. The Supreme Court held that the power or "organizing" a county rested solely with the Legislature and that Big Stone County was merely "established" by that body. The county therefore had not been organized and no offices existed. The county remained unorganized until 1881, when an act of the Legislature declared it organized. The county was divided into five commissioner districts in February 1881.

Origin of Name:

Big Stone County received its name from Big Stone Lake. The name was a translation of a Sioux name for the outcrops of granite and gneiss found in the Minnesota Valley not far away.


The original boundaries of Big Stone County, as defined by the Legislature in 1862, were practically the same as a present, with the exception that townships 123 and 124, range 44, were included. There townships were placed in Stevens County in 1868. The same act provided that the remaining area of the two northern tiers of townships in Big Stone County should be included in Traverse County. However, this would have left Big Stone with less than the 400 square miles that the Constitution requires. Therefore, the Stevens County provision went into effect, but the Traverse County provision was ignored. All uncertainty was cleared up by a legislative act of 1876 specifically outlining the boundaries. This act was amended in 1893 to correct a minor technical error in the description of the northwest corner.

An act approved by the Legislature in 1937, effective January 1, 1938, annexed to Big Stone County all the land situated in sections 16 and 21, township 121, range 46, in Lac qui Parle County. When Minnesota was admitted as a State in 1858, iron monuments were placed at the head of Big Stone Lake and Lake Traverse to mark that part of the western boundary of the State.

Judicial Districts:

Until July 1, 1957, Big Stone County was one of six counties constituting the 16th Judicial District of the State of Minnesota. One judge served that district. At the general election in November 1956 the voters of this state adopted Constitutional Amendment No. 1. One of the provisions of that amendment provided that there should be no judicial district in the state with less than two judges. The legislature decided to combine certain judicial districts rather than to re-carve the state into new judicial districts. The 16th Judicial District was combined with the 12th Judicial District forming the 6th Judicial District. As of July 1, 1959 the state was divided into 10 Judicial Districts and the 6th Judicial District became the 8th Judicial District of the state, but the counties in the 6th Judicial District and the number of judges in the district remained the same. A court was established in Big Stone County when it was declared organized in 1881. At the present time, the judges of the 8th Judicial District serve Big Stone County.

County Seat:

Ortonville was established as the county seat by the board of county commissioners in 1874. When the county was declared organized in 1881, Ortonville was named as the county seat until the next general election when the question of moving it to section 24, township 123, range 46 (Almond Township) was to be voted upon. The vote gave a large majority for Ortonville. The county seat has since remained there.


The first board of county commissioners, in September 1874, established the first six school districts. In 1876 there was an enrollment of 11 with a daily attendance of eight. By 1879 the number of school districts had increased to 15, the number of schools and districts, as well as enrollment, increased rapidly, so that for the year 1885 the number of districts was 47 and the enrollment was 1,061 in summer and 983 in winter. At the present time Big Stone County taxpayers support 4 school districts.

Agriculture and Industries:

Wheat, corn, soybeans and Alfalfa are the major crops in Big Stone County. There are about 400 farms in the county. Fifteen of them are dairy farms, about 25 raise hogs and 35 have beef cow herds. Area quarries mine granite, which is locally cut and polished, is sold both wholesale and retail. 7-Up Bottling Company, now Pepsi Cola Distributing, began operation in 1892.


Ortonville’s 18 hole golf course, Graceville’s 9 hole golf course, Toqua Park, Big Stone State Park, Bonanza State Park and Education Center, MinnKota Archery Range, Big Stone Federal Wildlife Refuge and a number of campgrounds and resorts are just a few of the recreational opportunities available in Big Stone County. Hunting and fishing are favorite multi-season activities for residents and visitors. Snowmobiling is growing in popularity as the number of miles of groomed trails increases yearly.

Big Stone County, Minnesota Statistical information includes:

  • 5269 – 2010 Census Population
  • 14 Organized Townships
  • 8 Cities
  • 4 Organized School Districts
  • 23 Voting Precincts
  • 31 Square Miles of Water
  • 491 Square Miles of Land
  • 408.69 Miles of County Roads
  • 309,519 Acres of Rural Land