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

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Good and the Bad of Standardized Place Names

From spell checkers to grammar correction, computer programs are becoming more proactive in helping you to spell correctly and use "correct" grammar. But what if my spelling is "nontraditional" and my grammar is whatever I want it to be? Can I stand being constantly told that I am wrong and the program is right? Why not just turn off both features? 

Now that trend has come to the genealogy programs that tells you to cite your place names according to the program's standard. Of course, correcting your spelling seems qualitatively different than a spell checker. Checking your spelling seems to be an immediate benefit, but correcting a place name is quite a bit more complicated and the benefits aren't as obvious.

Sometimes these suggested place names seem at odds with the genealogical standard that we record the place name as it was at the time the event recorded occurred. Of course, there are those who think that it is better to record the name of the place as it is today, but there are several reasons for sticking with the old names, even if the places they name no longer exist. This issue comes up frequently as the names of various places change over time. This can occur through wars, political action, expediency, or a myriad of other causes. The real concern is the researcher's ability to locate records and differentiate between people with the same or similar names.

One core reason for recording the name of the place at the time the event occurred is based on the assumption that any records will be kept and cataloged according to the historic location. This may or may not always be a valid conclusion. The current location and catalog method of the records is a completely different question and knowledge of the original location and name may or may not help in finding the records. Let's take a simple example. The historic English county of Huntingdonshire has now been realigned and incorporated in the modern county of Cambridgeshire. If I were looking for a place in England recorded as occurring in Huntingdonshire and located in what is now Cambridgeshire, where would I find the records? Here is the description of the town of Ramsey from Wikipedia:
Ramsey is a small market town and parish, north of Huntingdon and St Ives within the historic County of Huntingdonshire. For local government purposes it lies in the district of Huntingdonshire within the non-metropolitan county of Cambridgeshire.
Here is a further note about the historical records of Ramsey:
Original historical documents relating to Ramsey, including the original church parish registers, local government records, maps, photographs, and records of Ramsey manor (held by the Fellowes family, Lords de Ramsey), are held by Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies at the County Record Office Huntingdon. There is a Post Office in Ramsey.
In this case, locating the records would certainly depend, at least in part, on knowing and preserving the name of the original location where an even occurred when that location was in the Huntingdonshire county. It might also help to know the time table when these changes occurred. Huntingdonshire merged with Cambridgeshire in 1974 so this change took place well after events occurring in the 1800s.

Apart from considerations of the current location of the records, what other reasons might there be for preserving the name of the place at the time of the event? I can illustrate an additional reason by doing a search for a known ancestor who was born in Huntingdonshire, England named Thomas Parkinson. Here is the entry in the 1841 England, Wales & Scotland Census Transcription from
Census details
Family member last name PARKINSON
First name(s) James
Last name Parkinson
Gender Male
Age 35
Birth year 1806
Birth county -
Street Glassmoor
Parish or township Whittlesey St Mary & St Andrew
City or borough -
Town -
County Cambridgeshire
Country England
Registration district Whittlesey
Archive reference HO107
Piece number 82
Book number 9
Folio number 6
Page number 7
Record set 1841 England, Wales & Scotland Census
Category Census, Land & Substitutes
Subcategory Census
Collections from United Kingdom
(Emphasis added)
 You can see that the county of this census record is recorded as Cambridgeshire despite the fact that the original county was Huntingdonshire. Here is a further comment from Wikipedia about Huntingdonshire:
The area corresponding to modern Huntingdonshire was first delimited in Anglo-Saxon times, and the modern boundaries have remained largely unchanged since the 10th century, though it lost its county status in 1974.
Further explanations indicate that the county was split as early as 1889.
In 1889, under the Local Government Act 1888 Huntingdonshire became an administrative county, with the new County Council taking over administrative functions from the Quarter Sessions. The area in the north of the county forming part of the municipal borough ofPeterborough became instead part of the Soke of Peterborough administrative county, in Northamptonshire.
Any document created during the time when the place was in Huntingdonshire that mentioned the county, would indicate that the county was Huntingdonshire. The fact that the changes complicate both finding the present location of the records and the area covered by the original county do not mandate that the designation of the location be changed to reflect the modern county.

Another consideration is that places with same or very similar name can definitely complicate any situation involving locating the original records and determining which of the multiple locations was the one where your ancestors lived. For example there are at least 41 places in the United States named Springfield. See List of the most common U.S. Place names.  There are five of the Springfields in Wisconsin. Accurately recording the county at the time of an event would be crucial to determining the identity of an ancestor if the mention was that the event occurred in Springfield. If that were not enough of a reason, there are also eight towns in Wisconsin named "Washington" in eight different counties.

The main reason for establishing a standard name is to facilitate identification by computer search engines (programs). But my examples should point out that the issue of using or not using a standard place name is fairly complicated. After all this, the best practice is still to record the name of the place, in full, as it was at the time the event occurred.

But what happens when the program disagrees with your non-standard entry? Do you ignore the standard in these situations? It helps if the program has a way to preserve the non-standard entry and still continue to use the standard entry to search for records pertaining to the event. But you can see from the search example above from, this may not completely solve the problem. relies on standard place names, but there is a method for adding a non-standard name to the program's list of standard names. This is akin to the process of adding a new word to an online dictionary. I can illustrate this process with the following example.

Here is a list of the historical names of a place in Arizona with the historical county designations (I have used this example before several times in different contexts).

Allen's Camp, Yavapai, Arizona Territory, United States 1876
St. Joseph, Yavapai, Arizona Territory, United States 1878
St. Joseph, Apache, Arizona Territory, United States 1879
St. Joseph, Navajo, Arizona, Territory, United States 1895
St. Joseph, Navajo, Arizona, United States 1895
Joseph City, Navajo, Arizona, United States 1923

Each of these locations is exactly the same physical place with some adjustments for the boundaries. So depending on when a person was born in this location, the name of the birth place varies. So which is the "Standardized Place Name?" The answer should be all of them. If the program is sophisticated enough to properly utilize place names and if the program uses a standardized place name designation in its search engine, then it should also be sophisticated enough to allow for modification of the place names to reflect the actual name of a place at the time an event occurred.

Of course, the real problem here is finding the records and the secondary, but real, problem is that many researchers ignore these jurisdictional distinctions. My experience is that a very high percentage of the so-called brick wall problems are really a result of not properly identifying the place where a supposed event occurred. Identify the place at the time of the event and you are a long way down the road to finding the ancestor. The next step is to find the record, but you have a much better chance if you know the place of the event.


  1. The "historic name" vs. "present name" dilemma arose from the fact that paper forms only had so much space to record place names. It seems to me that the problem no longer needs to exist. Include alternative place names into the FHISO schema so that all compliant software will allow recording and sharing of both the present place name and the name that place was known by at the time of the event being recorded.

    1. I certainly agree, but I don't see that happening. FamilySearch, for example, could make a place for the historic place name and then have a standardized place name for searching with both showing to indicate that there is a difference.

  2. This is a good reason to not use the online software. If you use software that you control you do not have the limitations.

    1. Unfortunately, using "software that you control" does not solve the problem. I have seen way too many examples of places that were wrongly identified by people who control their own software.