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

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The problem with standardized place names

One feature of the New FamilySearch program is the introduction of the Standard Finder, a utility for looking up and regularizing place names around the world. There is a problem with using this, or any other geographic look-up function, due to changes in jurisdictions over time. Many of the current lineage linked database programs also include a link to a geographic database. Relying on this function may create change an accurate characterization of the locality, to its modern equivalent.

It is a well established rule in genealogical documentation, that an event is recorded with the appropriate geographic location existing at the time of the event. Here is an example from early Arizona history.

There is a small community in northern Arizona, presently called Joseph City. Originally, founded in 1876 with the name "Allen's Camp" the name of the town was changed to St. Josoph in January of 1878. Later, in 1923, the name of the town was changed to Joseph City to avoid confusion with St. Joseph, Missouri which was on the same mail and freight route across the country. Joseph City is presently in Navajo County. However, Navajo County was formed from Apache County on March 21, 1895. Apache County was created in 1879 from Yavapai County, one of the Arizona Territory's four original counties created in 1865.

This history is relatively uncomplicated compared to some geographic locations, but it illustrates the problem. A child born in that small Arizona town in 1878 would have been born in St. Joseph, Yavapai, Arizona Territory, United States. It would be very incorrect to record the birthplace as Joseph City, Navajo, Arizona, United States, which is what you get from the standardized place names. What is the answer? Don't use standardized place names unless they match the accurate designation of the location at the time of the event.

Here is a listing of a seach in the Standard Finder for "St. Joseph, Yavapai, Arizona":

Joseph City Apache > Arizona > United States > World
joseph city, st joseph, Unknown Joseph City, Apache, Arizona, United States North America US-AZ 34.93333 N
110.3 W
St. Joseph Apache > Arizona > United States > World
st joseph, Unknown St. Joseph, Apache, Arizona, United States North America US-AZ
Joseph City Navajo > Arizona > United States > World
allen camp, allens camp, joseph city, saint joesph, st joseph, Populated Place Joseph City, Navajo, Arizona, United States North America US-AZ 34.95583 N
110.33333 W
Saint Joseph Navajo > Arizona > United States > World
s jsph, saint joseph, st joe, st joesph, st jos, st joseph, st josephs, st js, st jsph, Unknown Saint Joseph, Navajo, Arizona, United States North America US-AZ 34.93333 N
110.33333 W

As you can see, it is pretty much of a mess. Without some time line information, it would be impossible to make an accurate choice of which of the variations was the most acceptable.

Why is it important to record place names in effect at the time of the event? One very simple answer is that as jurisdictions change, so do record repositories. If you don't know the jurisdiction at the time of the event, then you may never find the records.

More later on this important subject.


  1. Great article, thanks for publicizing the importance for the knowledge of historical geography. I wrote about this a little while ago at I hope FamilySearch's Standard Finder will eventually incorporate historical locations.

    Geoff Rasmussen

  2. I'm not one, myself, for strict historical accuracy in place names. For example, as I found out recently, due to a dispute with the US Postal Service, Mesa was called "Zenos" for about two years. A child born during that time should be recorded as being born in "Zenos," to the confusion of all future family members. Why not just record "Mesa"?

    On the other hand, perhaps that's too specific an example, because in the case of the counties, the vital and legal records could be located in different places, whereas in the case of Mesa/Zenos, the vital records wouldn't have moved anywhere.

    Hmm. Interesting questions to consider.

  3. Amy - my rule of thumb for this is to still record the place of birth as Zenos, for that child was not born elsewhere. Rather, in the birth notes make mention of the modern equivilent.

  4. An even more difficult situation would be the locations in New York. I have had difficulties standardizing these. The problem is that there are postal zones, towns, villages, cities, and other jurisdictions that are relevant in different ways. (And this is just within the sub-county level.) In many cases throughout the state, the village and town may roughly overlap, but not fit into exactly the same borders. This creates situations where the place in which an ancestor lived was within a village by one name, and a town by another. The genealogical significance of this is that vital records are created at the town level. Though the state retains copies as well, they are also notoriously slow in replying to requests.

  5. James, check out the new county check feature in RootsMagic 5. It takes care of this issue.