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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Even more on standardization of place names

The starting point for the use of place names in a family history or genealogical context is the rule that the place is the location at the time the event happened, especially if the place name was different at the time of the event. If there is a need for further explanation, the modern or current place name should be in a note. The reason for this rule is simple, any other notation obscures the historical reality and makes further investigation more difficult.

From the perspective of genealogy, geographic locations have several components;
A. The actual physical location on the earth which can be expressed through latitude and longitude coordinates.
B. The name of the location which can change over time, depending on historical circumstances.
C. The location of the place within any applicable political subdivision.
D. The repository of the political, social or religious records about the location.

So for an example, using an Arizona example, my relative may have been born in a small town located along the Little Colorado River. The coordinates happen to be 34°57′21″N 110°20′02″W
However, depending on the date of the event, let's say his birth, that place might have been called Allen's Camp, St. Joseph or Joseph City. You could make an argument that recording the birth place name as "Joseph City," which was not the name until 1923, is still accurate. However, using the current place name indiscriminately obscures not just the location, but a lot of the history. During that same time period, from 1876 to 1923, that same geographic location was located in three different counties, Yavapai, then Apache, then Navajo. Also during the same time period Arizona passed from being a territory, to becoming a state. All of this history is thrown out the window by ignoring history and geography and using a standard place name. Saying that my ancestor was born in Joseph City, Navajo, Arizona, United States to satisfy some subjective search criteria for a database is simply a bad practice.

The drive for standardized place names, regardless of the historical reality, is driven by those who put computer efficiency above historicity.

One reader asked questions about the practical problems of using a standardized place name. First, before answering the questions, it is important to note that several of the popular commercially available genealogical database programs have standard place name features. If you were not aware of the reasons behind using the place at the date of the event, you could get the idea that you should always opt for some kind of standard place. When a hugely influential program, like New FamilySearch, or any of the other popular programs promote a standardized scheme for naming places and ignoring history, that is a problem. This problem becomes a challenge for those who are sincerely concerned about historical accuracy and the preservation of some kind of historical consistency.

Fortunately, it is usually possible to establish the historical reality through research. I can find out when each of the county changes occurred and incorporate that information into my own records. Why do I care? I have said this before, but many brick walls or dead ends in history come from looking in the wrong place. If the place of your ancestor's birth was in Russia at the time, you may have to look for records in Russian repositories and all the searches in the world in Germany or Poland may never reveal the records.

As to counties in the U.S., there are books, computer programs and online sources for establishing the county at the time of the event. This is not even difficult.

I am sure I will have more to say about this subject.

1 comment:

  1. My concern is that the place for my birth listed on my birth certificate is "Bellflower-Lakewood rural" of Los Angeles County -- that is, the place was not inside any corporate limits. That's on my official state birth certificate (California). Another certificate issued by the U.S. Naval Hospital where I was born, gives the location as Long Beach, California. That's where I usually say I was born, as it was apparently the nearest municipality to "Bellflower-Lakewood rural" district.

    In the interest of historical accuracy, I do cringe inwardly each time I give my place of birth as Long Beach, California, but that is what my mother taught me in childhood, and what I've given all my life.

    H'mmm . . .