So is Minnesota really the 12th largest state?

Published 9:58 am Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Pothole Prairie by Tim Engstrom

Minnesota is the 12th largest state in the union. I hear that from time to time around here.

For example, Enchanted Learning, an online classroom, says it is. So does Wikipedia. So does our state government. So does the Minnesota Historical Society, and its historians are pretty good about facts.

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But as I was looking for things to do in Duluth and did some research, like when I bring up some other searches of the geographical sizes of states, such as World Atlas, Information Please Almanac and, they say it is 14th. They say even Kansas is bigger than Minnesota, and we know that’s not going to fly when talking geography around the old ice-fishing hole.

So which is it?

Well, the ones listing Minnesota as the 12th largest state would be total area, including territory covered by water, and goodness knows our state has a lot of water. About 7,300 square miles are under water, and, of that, 1,500 square miles are covered by Lake Superior alone. Minnesota comes in at No. 9 in terms of water area.

Consider poor old Michigan. It is the 11th largest state by total area, making it the largest state east of the Mississippi River, but by land area it falls all the way to 22nd behind Georgia. However, it is No. 2 when it comes to water area, right behind Alaska and ahead of Florida.

I don’t blame Minnesotans for wanting to pick the ranking of 12th instead of 14th. After all, it seems to make more sense to rank the geographical sizes of states by their jurisdiction rather than by land.

People might not build houses, roads and farms on water, but they don’t build them on jagged mountains, steep ridges, deep canyons, volcanoes, geysers, good beaches and plenty of other geographical features just the same, yet geographers don’t subtract all the uninhabitable places of Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming, California and so on. And the fact is sometimes people do dwell over water, such as on houseboats, in residences built on docks or on big ships traveling the Great Lakes.

Total area makes more sense to me. By total area, Minnesota has 86,936 square miles.

Most people can name the top three or four states by size, but it is interesting to know the order of the other big states. Colorado doesn’t seem bigger than Minnesota, but it is.

By the way, I’ve always guessed Idaho — a rather tall state — was bigger than Minnesota, but it is not. If its tip was placed on the straightened Canadian border just north of Warroad and Pinecreek, it’s southern border would reach the south side of Ames, Iowa, about where U.S. Highway 30 cuts across the Hawkeye State.

And who knew Iowa was bigger than the Empire State? Or that Washington state fits in between the two Dakotas?

Here are the states ranked by total area:

1. Alaska

2. Texas

3. California

4. Montana

5. New Mexico

6. Arizona

7. Nevada

8. Colorado

9. Oregon

10. Wyoming

11. Michigan

12. Minnesota

13. Utah

14. Idaho

15. Kansas

16. Nebraska

17. South Dakota

18. Washington

19. North Dakota

20. Oklahoma

21. Missouri

22. Florida

23. Wisconsin

24. Georgia

25. Illinois

26. Iowa

27. New York

28. North Carolina

29. Arkansas

30. Alabama

31. Louisiana

32. Mississippi

33. Pennsylvania

34. Ohio

35. Virginia

36. Tennessee

37. Kentucky

38. Indiana

39. Maine

40. South Carolina

41. West Virginia

42. Maryland

43. Hawaii

44. Massachusetts

45. Vermont

46. New Hampshire

47. New Jersey

48. Connecticut

49. Delaware

50. Rhode Island

A few interesting geographical facts about me: I was born in Rhode Island. I have lived in Rhode Island, Iowa, South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Washington state and Minnesota. Being in the Army then in newspapers helped expand that list when I was younger. I plan to stay in Minnesota, though.

I have been to 45 states, the District of Columbia and the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. I haven’t visited Florida, Maine, Arizona, Hawaii and Alaska. I haven’t been to Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands or any of the other minor island territories under U.S. possession.

If Congress made Puerto Rico a state, it would fall between Delaware and Connecticut in the size ranking by total area and by land area.

Which state has the least of amount of water area? With just a 192 square miles covered by water, West Virginia gets that honor. Iowa, where pioneers drained many of their prairie lakes for the sake of farming, is 45th. It has just 416 square miles of water.


Tribune Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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