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

Friday, August 21, 2009

Revisiting standardized geographic names

The comments to my last post on geographic naming raise a number of issues. The two main questions deal with changes in political subdivisions over time and the need to identify the location of local records. In the western states, where I live, there is not really much of a challenge, but in the eastern states and, of course, in Europe, place names may have change dozens of times. These changes are really an opportunity to become familiar with local history.

I suggest that the proper methodology for approaching geographic naming issues begins with a thorough examination of historical maps. It is important to identify the physical location of the event, independent of the changing place names. Just like a real estate title examiner who must follow the chain of ownership, to make progress in finding genealogically significant records, you must have a clear chain of jurisdictions. Recognizing that as the jurisdictions changed, i.e. from village to township to county, the repository for the local records may also have changed. Particularly, with county splits, some of the records may have remained in the parent county and some of the records may have gone to the newly created counties. That is, unless all of the records stayed in the parent county or were sent to a central repository, such as the state archives.

European jurisdictions have the additional challenges of wars and annexation. Not only do place names change, but the language spoken and the country may have also changed over time. Language and population movements occur in the U.S. also, but on a much smaller scale and over a much shorter time period.

The main reasons for using the name of the place at the time of the event, is not only to be historically accurate but to give the best opportunity for identifying the present location of local records. Most current lineage linked database programs (like RootsMagic, Legacy, Ancestral Quest, Family Tree Maker and others) have an option to record alternative events which could include adding another location for an event. If that feature is not available in the program you are using, then you may have to result to notes explaining the changes in the place name.

One comment questioned using an obscure place name that was used for a limited time period and concluded that the issue might be ignored and the current location name used. I disagree. Not only is it important to preserve the historical accuracy of the records, but place name changes may reflect other social and political issues that should be recorded as part of the family history. How many times have you searched for a location, only to find that the name is no longer used. If you ignore the original place names in favor of standardized naming, you lose valuable historical connections to the original population of the area.

There are many good arguments for standardizing place names, when the place name is subject to standardization, but not when the standard name obscures the actual place and history.


  1. Great thoughts James. As a side note, in Legacy when you type in a date and place, if that place didn't exist for the time period, you get a warning message. For example, if one typed in the year 1700 for the place "Woodstock, Windham, Connecticut", Legacy will present this warning: "Windham County did not exist in 1700 in the state of Connecticut. It was not founded until 1726." You can then click on the "Show County List" button to get a list of the parent/progeny counties. So this is helpful during data entry. But even more helpful is the "USA County Verifier" report found under the Tools menu. This will report to you all places in your family file that may be incorrect for the time period. Sure wish this were available for the rest of the world, but the US is a good start. I'm confident, as you have explained, that for some researchers, brick walls can come crashing down if they were looking in the right location for the time period.

    Geoff Rasmussen

    1. I am very frustrated with the whole concept of standard place names.

      Many critics focus on the problems of historical accuracy, what with changing place names and changing political boundaries. Other critics focus on ambiguities in place names in the sense that a given place name might simultaneously represent more than one political subdivision. In some cases, there might be a smaller, central political subdivision which is contained within a larger political subdivision of the same name. In other cases, there might be two different and unrelated political subdivisions with the same name - as for example, a city and county of the same name in the same state, but where the city is not in the county of the same name.

      Those are all valid concerns, and I share them. But my concern about standard place names is much more mundane in some ways. I just hate the way they look in reports. They don't read well, and they don't read the way that real people - which is to say, non-genealogists - speak about place names.

      For example, I don't want my reports to make reference to Knox, Tennessee, United States. I want my reports to make reference to Knox County, Tennessee. Many people not familiar with the area may not know whether Knox is a town or township or city or county or whatever, and I think it needs to be made explicit in reports. And even if my reader knows that Knox is a county name, real people never speak of Knox, Tennessee. They always speak of Knox County or of Knox County, Tennessee. On the other hand, everybody reading my reports already knows that Tennessee is a state in the United States and nobody ever speaks of Tennessee, United States. I realize that sounds American-centric, but I have lived in Europe in my experience with Europeans at least is that if I tell them that I am from Tennessee then they know I'm from the United States.

      An example in the other direction is Oliver Springs, Tennessee. Oliver Springs is a real town - not just an unincorporated community - with a mayor and police department and a fire department, etc. And it's a very small town. But even though it's a very small town, it's situated such that it straddles three counties. So there is Oliver Springs, Anderson County, Tennessee and there is Oliver Springs, Roane County, Tennessee and there is Oliver Springs, Morgan County, Tennessee. I often record events that took place in Oliver Springs where there is no way to tell which county the event took place. So do I record the event as taking place in Oliver Springs,, Tennessee or what? I call that the 'comma, comma, comma syndrome", and I hate it. So I record the place name as Oliver Springs, Tennessee. But if I were to do that and then if I were to try to follow the standard place name and record Knox County as Knox, Tennessee, then how is a reader supposed to understand that Oliver Springs is a town and Knox is a county?

      I really just want to throw the whole concept out and start over somehow or other because the current way of doing standardized place names is so dysfunctional. It's hard to know what to do exactly, but I think a proper solution would involve layering and having a storage layer for place names and a display layer for place names. So in the storage layer, a place name might properly be recorded as Knox, Tennessee, United States and geocoded as such, etc. But in the display layer, the same place name might be displayed as Knox County, Tennessee. And with the layer concept, there could be multiple display layers that could have different styles. For example, there might be a display style where the name is displayed Knox County, TN and another display style where the name is displayed as Knox, Tennessee, USA, etc.

      Jerry Bryan

    2. Very interesting observations. Check out some of the later posts on this subject and some of the comments. We are considering most of your concerns.