In the first centuries AD political and administrative subdivisions began to emerge in Estonia. Two larger subdivisions appeared: the parish (kihelkond) and the county (maakond). The parish consisted of several villages. Nearly all parishes had at least one fortress. The defense of the local area was directed by the highest official, the parish elder. The county was composed of several parishes, also headed by an elder. By the 13th century the following major counties had developed in Estonia: Saaremaa (Osilia), Läänemaa (Rotalia or Maritima), Harjumaa (Harria), Rävala (Revalia), Virumaa (Vironia), Järvamaa (Jervia), Sakala (Saccala), and Ugandi (Ugaunia). Additionally there were several smaller elderships in central Estonia where danger of war was smaller – Vaiga, Mõhu, Nurmekund and Alempois. The exact number and borders of some elderships are disputed.
The first documented mentioning of Estonian political and administrative subdivisions comes from the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, written in the 13th Century during the Northern Crusades.
The Autonomy of the Estonia counties and parishes ended after conquered and divided between Denmark, Livonian Order, Bishopric of Dorpat and Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek. The name of Rävala became Reval, replacing the name of an Estonian town Lindanisse, later Tallinn. Ugandi, Sakala and the smaller elderships disappeared from common usage.
In the 1580s, after the Livonian war as Sweden had conquered Northern Estonia, Harju, Järva, Lääne and Viru counties were officially formed there. Southern Estonia, which belonged to Poland 1582-1625, was divided into voivodships of Pärnu and Tartu; the island of Saaremaa belonged to Denmark until 1645. They all became counties as they went under Swedish rule.
This administrative system mostly remained as Estonia went under Russian rule as a result of the Northern War. In 1793 were formed Võru County in the south of Tartumaa, Viljandi County between Tartu and Pärnu counties, and Paldiski County in the west of Harjumaa. In 1796 Paldiski County was joined with Harjumaa again. Until 1888 Võrumaa and Viljandimaa were not completely independent from Tartumaa and Pärnumaa respectively.
Several changes were made to the borders of countis after Estonia became independent, most notably the formation of Valga County (from parts of Võru, Tartu and Viljandi counties) and Petseri County (area acquired from Russia with the 1920 Tartu peace treaty).
During the Soviet rule, Petseri County once again became a part of Russia in 1945. Hiiumaa seceded from Läänemaa in 1946, Jõgevamaa from Tartumaa in 1949 and Jõhvimaa (modern Ida-Virumaa) from Virumaa in 1949. Counties were completely dissolved in 1950 as Estonian SSR was divided into regions (rajoonid) and (until 1953) oblasts. Until the 1960s the borders of regions changed often until 15 of them were left. Out of them, Põlva and Rapla regions became separate, while the others were roughly corresponding to the pre-1950 counties.
Counties were re-established in 1 January 1990 in the borders of the Soviet-era regions. Due to the numerous differences between the current and historical (pre-1940) layouts, the historical borders are still used in ethnology, representing cultural and linguistical differences better.
Read more about this topic: Counties Of Estonia
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