Yes, yes, of course. But why those particular smallish cities for state capitals?

I suppose as far back as later grade school years I was vaguely aware that most U.S. state capitals were definitely not the most populous cities in their respective states. (Boston, Denver and Honolulu are exceptions.) In my own state, New York State, Albany is not only tiny compared to New York City, but also outranked by Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers and Syracuse.

It was not until early college years I came across an explanation from Asimov that the reason was fear of “big city mobs”.

Only in recent months has it occurred to me to ask: Okay, sure, but how were those particular smallish urban areas chosen? Why, for example, Sacramento, CA, instead of some other alternative to teeming L.A.?

Secondly, as long as on the general subject: Is there a pattern to the decisions on the three or so exceptions?

In the case of my state, Olympia is the state capital simply because it’s the oldest American settlement in the state - Seattle didn’t really get started until a few years later (its first general store having been founded by an Olympian who went north), and by then the territorial government had already been established here. There were abortive attempts to move the capital to Seattle (and, of all places, the even more remote and smaller Ellensburg) around the beginning of the 20th century that came to naught.

Outside the original 13 colonies, capitals seem to have been largely modeled on the Washington DC approach: “let’s build a town specifically to function as our seat of government.” Similar to the establishment of DC, this approach seems to have been a common compromise to avoid favoring any established population center. For example, Tallahassee (Florida) was centrally located between Pensacola and St. Augustine, which were at that time the largest cities in the state.

ETA: if you look at this state capital map you’ll see that the vast majority of post-1780 capitals are centrally located within their respective states.

In the case of Albany, it was actually the oldest colonial settlement in New York, even predating permanent settlements in Manhattan, having been established by Dutch furriers in 1614. It was made the capital after the independence and remained thus mostly because it was

  1. Not New York City, which by the late 18th century had developed as an economic and population center,
  2. Somewhat centrally located in the state, and
  3. Accessible via the Hudson River and Erie Canal.

The rust belt cities like Rochester and Buffalo developed much later as industrial manufacturing centers from the mid-19th century.

Sacramento was chosen as the capital mainly because it was closer to the gold fields than San Francisco. Los Angeles wasn’t even a remote factor in the decision, since until the 20th century it was a desert backwater.

It’s probably even more so if the population density of the state is taken into account. For example, the capitals of Kansas and Nebraska in the eastern part of their states, and Washington and Oregon in the western part, because the rest of the state was less densely populated.

Altho I love reading The Good Doctor, I dunno if his answer holds up.

California is an exception.

Carson City is an exception:

As Smapti said- Washington is an exception.

Oregon, too. Florida. etc.

I always assumed that the were chosen to be centrally located, since transportation was a lot tougher in those days. Which pretty much guaranteed that they would be small towns, as large cities tend to grow on waterways (rivers and lakes or ocean coasts), which also generally happen to be state boundaries, and therefore nowhere near the center.

Tallahassee was chosen because it was midway between the two main Florida settlements at the time, Pensacola and St. Augustine. As I recall, it took legislators several months to reach the new capital in order to convene the first session.

Some states had their first territorial capital in another place, convenient for the first session of government, awaiting the building of a capital elsewhere. Belmont, Wisconsin, comes to mind.

There’s also definitely more than those three exceptions. Just off the top of my head can think of Boise, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Des Moines, and I’m sure there’s some others.

Maybe today but what about when the capital was chosen? For example, Buffalo had a smaller population than Albany for more than 50 years after Albany was made the capital.

I’m sure a lot of them are like South Carolina - Charleston at the time was the big city but people elsewhere thought it had quite enough power already thank you very much so they built Columbia in the middle. So not just “central location” but “take some of the power away from the big coastal city and even it out”.

According to Wikipedia, in 17 states, the capital is the largest city. See here. In another 9, it’s the second largest, so for more than half the states, the capital is either the largest or second largest city in that state.

ETA: It might be interesting to find a list that ranks them at the time they became a state capital, too.

Indianapolis would be the biggest one everyone’s missed so far. Or Atlanta, if you count metro area.

As should be clear by now, there are few patterns to American state capitals. They tend to be toward the center of the state, except when they’re not. They tend not to be the largest city in the state, except when they are. They’re old and historic (Boston, Santa Fe, Honolulu), except when they’re built to order at the time of establishment (Indianapolis, Tallahassee), or when they’re moved out of an old and historic city (Philadelphia to Harrisburg).

Siting a capital is a political decision, subject to the pushes and pulls of any other political decision. There are 50 states, and 50 stories.

The destruction associated with the Civil War led to two state capital moves. Biracial Reconstruction governments moved LA from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and GA from Milledgeville to Atlanta. After white supremacists returned to power, they moved LA back to Baton Rouge, but left Atlanta in place. Not even white supremacists wanted to go back to Milledgeville.

Juneau, AK is a real anomaly, since not only is it not centrally located, it’s only accessible by air or water, making travel to and from the capital by legislators very expensive and not without danger. There have been many attempts (and votes) to move the capital to an area on the road system, but the money never seems to be found to accomplish that. Juneau is the third largest population center in Alaska, and the largest in land area of any capital in the US.

While that is true about L.A. back then, there is more to it than being near the goldfields. The original Capitol for CA was in San Jose, then Vallejo, then Benicia, and finally Sacramento. It seems the reasons for the moves were lack of space and “accommodations” in each of these cities. Why it ended-up in Sacramento had to do with a generous offer from the city of land and other spaces for nearly no cost, and Sacramento already had hotels, a port, and other infrastructure in place (probably due to being near the gold fields).


Why San Francisco was not considered, I am not sure - it was definitely a city in the early 1850s, when all these moves took place. There was pretty much nothing but ranches and wilderness in the rest of the state, except around the Missions and the gold mining areas.

West Virginia became a state during the Civil War. During the war, it made sense to have the capital in Wheeling at the north end of the state. That was a center of power politically, and was about as far away from the Confederate lines as you could get and stay within the state.

After the war, things became a real mess. Wheeling was a large population center in the state, and had a lot of power politically as well. A lot of folks wanted Wheeling to remain the state capital, but other folks in the state didn’t like the idea of one of the state’s largest economic centers also holding all of the political power in the state. Charleston was chosen as a more central location, both geographically and politically. But then due to political wrangling, the capital was moved back and forth between Wheeling and Charleston several times over the next couple of decades. Some people used to jokingly refer to it as the “floating capital”. After several moves, a lot of political wrangling, and even a statewide election on the matter, Charleston won out and remains the capital to this day.

Tangental question regarding county seats, if the OP will allow…

I understood county seats were generally designated as being about one-day’s ride by horse to any other settlement in that county. Clearly, when you look at Texas, that could be the case, as with most of the Eastern (older) states. A lot of county seats are generally centrally situated. However, when you start getting into the newer states, counties start becoming a lot larger, and county seats may not be centrally located. This was prior to the advent of the automobile in most cases, so I am not sure exactly when this “one-day’s ride” rule ended. Anyone know?

That seems to be an urban legend. There are lots of references to the “rule” in high school study guides but I can’t find any reference to it ever having been law.