American state capitals

As someone who lives outside the States (I live in Australia to be precise), I’ve long been puzzled by the way that the capitals of a lot of American states aren’t really the cities that you’d expect them to be (ie the biggest and/or most well-known city in the state in question, as is the case over where I live). For example, why is California’s capital Sacramento, rather than LA or San Francisco? Why is the capital of Illinois Springfield rather than Chicago? Why is the capital of Texas Austin rather than, say, Dallas or Houston? (I have visited Austin, incidentally, and found it a lovely place, so I’m not trying to bash it.) And so on. Why does this seem to be the case so often? Was there a special system used to determine which city in every state would be its capital (a friend of mine said there might have been - one based on geography - but I’m not sure if this is true)? Also, while I’m on the subject of these sorts of idiosyncrasies, why isn’t Kansas City actually in Kansas?

A lot of the state capitols were chosen because, at the time they became states, they were the most influential city in the state. Sacramento, for example, is fairly central, situated on a major river that’s navigable clear to the ocean, on one of the major wagon trails from across the Sierra to the coast, etc.

Bear something else in mind: at the time that many of these capitals were chosen, transportation was still fairly primitive and difficult (typically by a horse-drawn carriage). So, in many cases, the city or town selected was chosen because it was in (or close to) the center of the state. That way, whenever legislators had to travel to the capital, ALL of them had to travel similar distances, and no individual legislator was given an undue travel burden.

Yes, that was pretty much my friend’s theory (he lived in Texas for about two and a half years incidentally).

Look closer. There is a Kansas City in Kansas and a Kansas City in Missouri - they’re right across the border from each other. KC, Missouri is the more populous one. There’s also an Indiana in Pennsylvania, an Arkansas City in Texas, and a Peru in Indiana.

The same is true of the Australian national capital, right? Canberra is the capital, but not Sydney or Melbourne. Perhaps there are some similarities.

Also, in many cases, the largest and most well-known city is, in fact, the capital of a given state – Atlanta, Ga; Boston, MA; Phoenix, AZ; Denver, CO; Indianapolis, IN; Jackson, MS.

In cases when a smaller city is the capital, there are many possible reasons, some of which have already been given.

One way in which the Australian experience differs from the US experience is that, while not Australian state has changed its capital, states in the US have often changed capitals. For example, the capital of New York State was at one time New York City, and the capital of Pennsylvania was at one time Philadelphia. In both cases, the state decided to move the capital away from the largest city in the state to somewhere closer to the centre of the state. That would be like the capital of New South Wales moving from Sydney to somewhere like Bathurst.

Given that state capitals can move for reasons of geographical convenience, they can move for other reasons. The most recent move that I know of is that the state capital of Ohio moved from Columbus to Chillicothe, then next day moved back to Columbus again. This was on Saturday, March 1, 2003, for the bicentenary of Ohio statehood: Chillicothe had been the state capital of Ohio back in 1803.

There were many factors, and the size of the city was only one of them.

  1. Transportation issues. In New York, for instance, the largest city is located in the far southeast corner. Before railroads (or the Erie Canal), it was difficult to reach for those in the western part of the state.

  2. Politics. People who lived outside of the largest city often worried that the distance would keep them from having their rightful say. They would lobby for other locations. In New York, it probably didn’t help that NYC was royalist during the revolution.

  3. Bribery. New York’s capital is in Albany (and not Newburgh, the original capital) because Albany promised to build a capitol building for free if they moved there.

  4. State pride. Georgia moved its capital to Atlanta after the Civil War partly to show that Sherman’s burning their largest city wasn’t going to stop them (though Sherman burned Milledgeville, the antebellum capital, too).

  5. Happenstance and inertia. Sometimes a territorial capital was set up to be convenient for the Federal government. Once the territory became a state, the capital remained the same.

BTW, Kansas City IS in Kansas. But there’s a Kansas City, Missouri on the opposite side of the river. It just happened that the Missouri side ended up with a larger population.

Yes, you got me there (Canberra’s not even a very old place either; I think it only came into being back in the 1930s). Similar examples of this type I can think of include Brazil (with its capital of Brasilia rather than, say, Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro), maybe Canada (Ottawa instead of Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver), Saudi Arabia (Riyadh rather than Mecca or Medina; mind you, as the last two are only open to Muslims, they probably wouldn’t be very good choices for a national capital), Pakistan (Islamabad rather than Karachi), Morocco (Rabat instead of Casablanca), and maybe India.

Also, bear in mind that many cities and towns were established in territories that were not yet states. The founders of Kansas City, Missouri didn’t know for certain that Missouri would be a state, or where its borders would be if it DID become a state.

At the time, “Kansas” was the name of an Indian tribe that lived in the region (the name literally means “people of the South wind”). The city was named after that tribe. The permanent, official borders between Kansas and Missouri were, presumably, established later.

The above applies to my state, Ohio, as well.

The initial capital is the small town I live in, Marietta, because it was the first organized town in the territory. When geography and population made clear that wasn’t the best idea the capital moved.

Ottawa was chosen because Montreal, Toronto, Kingston, and Quebec City were fighting over who would become the capital of the new Province of Canada (basically Ontario and Quebec, pre-confederation, so Vancouver wasn’t an issue), and wouldn’t agree. So Queen Victoria gave it to none of them, and selected a lumber town that was roughly in the middle.

These are the two most important reasons. In the United States, there is a long history of political one-upmanship between the cities and the countryside. Historically, rural areas have disproportionate power in legislatures (state and federal)* and they wanted to keep the capital away from those damn city folks.

*Although the situation has been addressed somewhat in legislative bodies by banning at-large or multi-seat districts and requiring legislative districts to have roughly equal population, this is still true in the Electoral College.

Missouri was settled and became a state long before there were any real towns in Kansas (even before there was an official jurisdiction named “Kansas”). The town of Kansas (later Kansas City), was named after the local Kansa Indian tribe. The city, which is on Missouri’s eastern border, became an important jumping-off point for western settlement.

Kansas Territory (which was later trimmed down and eventually became the State of Kansas) was also named after the Kansa Indians, but it was long after Kansas City was established.

Long story short, Kansas City, Mo., was named long before there was a Kansas.

These kinds of discrepancies are very common in the United States. Take a look at a map of Ohio and you’ll notice all kinds of odd situations:

– There’s a city called Ottawa and an Ottawa County, but the city is in Putnam County
– Sandusky is in Erie County, adjacent to Sandusky County
– Upper Sandusky is two counties away in Wyandot County
– Washington Court House is in Fayette County, almost completely across the state from Washington County
– West Carrollton is a long way off from Carrollton and Carroll County
– Miamisburg is in Montgomery County, south of Miami County
– Shelby is in Richland County, far off from Shelby County
– Huron is in Erie County, north of Huron County

and so on …

A lot of these discrepancies have to do with the way states and counties were created. A huge territory is named and settlement begins; slowly pieces are sliced off into smaller jurisdictions, sometimes cutting out a city that has the same name as the formerly large territory.

I don’t think Marietta was ever the capital of the state of Ohio, though it may have been the capital of the Ohio Territory at some time before 1803.

1803-1810 is was Chillicothe, 1810-1812 it was Zanesville, 1812-1816 it was Chillicothe again, and since 1816 (except for one day in 2003) it has been Columbus.

This article explains everything.

Alaska’s state capitol, Juneau, was chosen because of its proximity to the gold fields. We tried to move it to a place closer to the population center back in the late 70s, but they refused to budge. Ask Chefguy what the current status of the capitol is. :smiley:

Indiana’s first capital was Corydon, which is farther south. Indianapolis was built to be the capital, smack dab in the middle of the state. Indiana’s 92 counties were laid out on the general rule that the county seat was no more than a day’s ride from anywhere in the county. We drive cars now, and the roads are all paved, but the original layout remains.

Also, a lot of the “major” cities did not become “major” until quite late in the game. e.g. Miami and the rest of Southern Florida was esentially considered swampland not worth too much until the early 20th Century, and then only as a vacation spot. Tallahassee may not be “central” to the whole of the state, but it WAS “central” to those parts of the state that held an active economy and large population in the mid-1800s.

And, if I remember correctly, several of these moves were preceded by fires that burned down the statehouse. Important buildings used to burn down all the time before electric lighting and heating.

Michigan is another example of a state where the capitol was moved out of the largest city (Detroit) to a more centrally-located city (Lansing).