Harlan County is another of those in Nebraska where historians differ on how the county received its name. There are some who claim the county was named after a revenue collector by the name of Harlan who once lived near Republican City. Others say the county was named in honor of James Harlan, who was the U.S. Secretary of the Interior in 1865 and 1866.
In any case, Harlan County was created by the Legislature on June 3, 1871, when lawmakers separated this area from a much larger Lincoln County. At the time, a settlement known as Melrose was considered the county seat. The following month, an election was held in the settlement of Alma to select a permanent county seat and to elect the first county officers.
Although voters selected Alma, it would take several more elections and a district judge's ruling before the settlement on the Republican River would actually become the home of the county's government. When county commissioners encountered difficulty in securing county records, Alma resident Joel A. Piper journeyed to Melrose one evening and, with the aid of an accomplice, "took" the records. Piper gained much notoriety for his deed, and in 1875 he was elected sheriff. In the years that followed Piper would serve as the county's superintendent of schools and clerk. In 1894 he would make a move to state government when he was elected Nebraska's ninth Secretary of State.
Harlan County has used four different buildings to house county offices since it was formally organized. The first was an upper story of a private residence that was used from 1875 to 1877. Then from 1877 to 1880, county offices were housed in an Alma business. The first actual courthouse was built in the county in 1880. Constructed of brick, it was located on what would become known as the courthouse square in Alma. This courthouse would serve the public until 1965, when a new courthouse was built on the same site at a cost of $320,000.