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Monday, December 15, 2014

Returning to the issue of standardized place names and dates

One of the more significant movements in the world of genealogy programs is the tendency for developers to force users to rely on a list of "standardized place names." Incidentally, they also standardize dates, but the impact of standardized dates is much less than the impact of standardized place names. First off, the place names of many locations around the world have changed over time. Some locations have had multiple place names due to wars, changes in governments, changes in the language spoken over time and many other factors. Some place names have changed simply because the conflicted with a similar place name in another location and mail was being routed incorrectly. 

Standardized place names obscure these changes and make genealogical research immeasurably more difficult and ignore the realities of history. The unsuspecting users of such programs adopt place names that have no relationship to reality, such as including "United States" or a state name in a location long before any such jurisdiction existed.

I must acknowledge that there are genealogists who advocate and teach that the place name should be recorded as it exists today. What they ignore is that the name used today may also change over time and become misleading in the future. The only safe way to record events is to record them with the name of the place as it existed at the time of the event. That name will not change. But to simply record the name of the place at the time the event occurred may also be misleading. Any subsequent, significant name changes should also be recorded. This may actually involve the researcher in doing a little bit of historical research, but such is always good for the soul of a competent genealogist.

What is more frustrating from a research standpoint, is when genealogists list a "current" place name that did not exist at all historically. For example, I once ran across an entry in my research where the birth place of my Great-grandfather who was born in 1778 was listed as Cottonwood, Utah. Yes, South Cottonwood was where he died in 1850, but back in 1778 that area of the country was not yet settled by Europeans and in fact, belonged to Mexico. This may seem like an obvious and trivial example, but the reality is that listing a current place name when such a place did not exist at the time, such as appending "United States" to entries prior to the establishment of the country, can lead to serious misconceptions and errors in research.

Genealogically important records are generally created as a result of the occurrence of an event. Such events occur in a particular and very specific geographic location. The records are usually created by jurisdictions in existence at the time of the event. For example, if a baby is born, the event occurs at a specific location and at a specific time. The date and place for the birth event would be most accurate if it were recorded near in time to the event. This is not always the case. A record of the birth could be made at any time subsequent to the event's occurrence. For example, a record of the birth might not occur until the time of the individual's death or even after his or her death. As genealogists, we soon learn that records created at or near the time of an event's occurrence are more reliable than those created at a later date. We also learn the records of any particular event are usually created in the different jurisdictions, political, social, religious, etc., that exist at the time of the event or subsequent to the event. Another example, suppose an individual was born and no record made of the event (not uncommon), but later, that individual joins some kind of military unit and his or her birthdate is recorded in the military records. Aside from considerations of reliability, the jurisdiction, in this case, the military unit or organization, may not have existed at the time of the individual's birth, but the record is still valid. A record of any particular event could be recorded at any time after the event occurred.

Now, back to standardized place names. The record of an event, to be most genealogically useful, must contain enough information to establish where the event occurred. Not just a general statement, but a specific reference to a specific location. The tendency of current programs to aid the user in substituting a current location for the real, historic one makes finding the true location much more difficult and in some cases impossible. This is particularly true of situations where it is important to distinguish between people of the same or similar name that lived in the same area at the same time. Lack of any specific locations in a record about an individual indicates that the reliability of the entry is for all practical purposes zero.

Let me give an example. If I go to's Family Tree, I can easily click back through my supposed ancestors. In doing so, I get back to a entry that states the following: Margaret Ranken, b. about 1714 in Scotland, deceased. This entry lacks any source records and has Margaret Ranken married to John Stewart, christened 17 August 1712, in Caputh, Perth, Scotland. He is also listed without a death date or place as deceased. The source listed is as follows:

Scotland, Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950," index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 15 December 2014), John Stewart, 17 Aug 1712; citing CAPUTH,PERTH,SCOTLAND, reference ; FHL microfilm 1,040,072, 102,697.

The reason for the conclusion is given as, "This christening in Caputh, Perth, Scotland which is the place that this John Stewart was married."

The source for the marriage is listed as follows:

"Scotland, Marriages, 1561-1910," index, FamilySearch ( : accessed 15 December 2014), John Stewart and Margaret Rankine, 13 Oct 1733; citing Caputh,Perth,Scotland, reference ; FHL microfilm 1,040,072, 1,040,073.

Note: The record apparently gives the spelling of Ranken as Rankine. There is no reference to the different spelling in the Family Tree record. The reason given for this source is "marriage record."

Now let's look at the place these events were supposed to occur. 

Caputh is a village in Perth and Kinross, Scotland. See Wikipedia, Caputh, Perth and Kinross. Perth and Kinross is one of the 32 council areas of Scotland and Lieutenancy Area. It corresponds broadly, but not exactly, with the former counties of Perthshire and Kinross-shire. See Wikiepedia: Perth and Kinross. The single district of Perth and Kinross was not created until 1975. 

But notice that Margaret Ranken (or Rankine) was recorded as born in "Scotland" with no further information. The standardized place name for Caputh, Perth, Scotland is Caputh, Perthshire, Scotland. Well, following this a little further, we find that Perthshire, Scotland was officially called County of Perth and was a local government county from 1890 to 1930. See Wikipedia: Perthshire. But these particular events occurred back in the early 1700s. 

The records referenced turn out to be indexes with no images. There is a digital copy of the Scotland Births and Baptisms in the Historical Record Collections. Here is the description of the record from the Research Wiki:
This index is an electronic index for the years 1564 to 1955. It is not necessarily intended to index any specific set of records. This index is not complete for any particular place or region. This collection may include information previously published in the International Genealogical Index or Vital Records Index collections. 
There are no Scotland indexing projects currently, so this collection is not expected to change in the foreseeable future. 
The index, Scotland Births and Baptisms, 1564-1955, is to be used as a tool to locate and view the original documents. The documents or records record more than what is found in the index.
How do we find Margaret Ranken's (or Rankine) parents from the place listing and the source? Despite the note in the Research Wiki article, there is no indication that the original record was recorded. Further research shows that Caputh, Perth and Kinross was created as a civil parish in 1889. See Wikipedia: Perthshire. In 1887, John Bartholomew's Gazetteer of the British Isles describes Caputh like this: See A Vision of Britain Through Time.
Caputh, par. (partly in Forfarshire, but chiefly in Perthshire) and vil. (wholly in Perthshire), near left bank of river Tay, 1½ m. NW. of Murthly sta. and 5 m. SE. of Dunkeld, 20,359 ac. (870 water), pop. 2096.
From this we can see that Caputh was both a parish and a village. Was this particular John Stewart born in the parish or the village? Were there other John Stewarts in this same parish or village? Is the christening record the same person as the marriage record?

At this point the issue becomes extremely complicated, much more so than the fact that there is a "standardized place name" for Caputh. If you want to see how complicated, go to the Parish of Caputh, which has an extensive explanation of the towns included in the parish taken from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885. Note, there a multiple warnings that the information on this website is subject to copyright and so I did not copy any of the text into this post.

You should be able to see, if you read the link to the Parish of Caputh, that determining if we have the right ancestors could be a very complicated proposition and that the standardized place name is less than useful in this situation as it implies that the record came from the Village of Caputh as opposed to the Parish.

Final note: I am not really sure why these British and Scottish references are put online, since it appears that they don't really want anyone to quote or copy any of these books more than a hundred years old.

Another final note: The issue of using any kind of standardized place name is extremely complicated. My opinion is that the main reason for this issue of standardization involves the desires of the programmers to regularize their data for search purposes. But as you can likely see, this obscures the real issues of where an event occurred and where the records might be found. All we have here in my example is a conclusion drawn from same name = same person. We do not know where the marriage took place and we do not know where either of the spouse was actually born.

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