Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Take Time for a Geographic Timeline -- Part Two International Boundaries

Map of Western Europe in 1815
Many genealogical researchers seem to lose track of the time element in their accumulation of names and dates. Commonly, I see the location of events before 1776 are said to have occurred in the United States of America, an historical impossibility. However, there are a number of researchers that feel that the place of an event should be recorded in its presently designated location. To the contrary, the best practice is to record the location of all events as the locations were designated at the time the events occurred.

Since many types of records are created in jurisdictions with geographic proximity to the events recorded, it important to recognize the jurisdictions responsible for those records. If they ignore this rule, researchers may find themselves looking for records in places where they do not exist. Additionally, tracing records to the present storage location is much easier if the researchers knows the political and social boundaries in place at the time of the event. One of the more common errors committed by inexperienced researchers is believing the references to places of birth of parents listed in the U.S. Census records. One example of this was a patron at the Mesa FamilySearch Library who was looking for his ancestor in "Austria" and found that the person spoke "Hungarian" and therefore was not an Austrian at all. The search in Austria was initiated by the reference in a U.S. Census record.

It is imperative that genealogical researchers become aware of not only the local but also the national history of the area in which they are conducting research. International boundaries change frequently. There is no substitute for examining maps made close to the time that events in the life of the ancestor occurred. There are fortunately huge collections of historical maps online. One of the most helpful websites is This website provides links to hundreds of thousands of online maps in different areas of the world. The interface is extremely useful in that it lets you draw a rectangle around that portion of the world you wish to search for maps. The website then selects out all the maps that fall within the rectangle.

A significant challenge in determining the place of origin of an immigrant is determining the name of the place at the time the immigrant was born. In some parts of Eastern Europe it is possible that the same location has a name in more than one language. Some places in what is now Poland have place names in both Russian and German. It is important to search online for information concerning the previous name of various locations to attempt to ascertain what the place was called at the time. This is particularly true for places such as Poland that have undergone considerable political change.

It is also helpful to consult a variety of international gazetteers. Some of the most extensive online geographic databases include a one maintained by the US Board on Geographic Names a division of the United States Geological Survey. The Board maintains a list of domestic as well as worldwide names, many of which date back to historical times. The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) contains more than 2 million physical and cultural features located throughout the United States of America and its territories. The National Geospatial – Intelligence Agency maintains the GEOnet Names Server (GNS)  which is the official repository of standard spellings of all poor and geographic names sanctioned by the United States Board on Geographic Names. The database also contains a variant spellings (cross references) which are useful for finding purposes, as well as non-Roman script spellings of many of these names. See

Once you begin the task of searching for a place, you will find that the task can seem to be overwhelmingly difficult due to the staggeringly large number of geographic resources online. The number of maps alone is overwhelming. However, this wealth of information indicates that there is really no excuse for being vague about a place as long as the research indicates a way to identify it properly.

For part one of this series see:

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