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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Changing locations, a mystery

The standard method of recording events, from a genealogical and geographical perspective, is to record the name of the location of the event at the time the event occurred. After I assumed that everyone understood this convention in a recent post, I received an insightful and interesting question from a commentator, how do you indicate that the name of the place has changed? The question seems to call for a simple answer, but upon reflection, the answer is anything but simple.

I was recently looking for a location and found the place name in the extensive United States Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Board on Geographic Names database. It turned out that the location was a post office that was only in existence for about six months back in the 1850s. Obviously, a reference to this place name would be just about as puzzling as listing the person born in a town before that town was established. So what do I do?

Most of the programs available for storing genealogical data today have a way to attach a note to a specific event. In the case of the name of a place changing, the history of the name changes should be recorded in the notes attached to the event in question. Some of the available programs have a graphic way to indicate that a note is attached to a specific fact or event. This type of notation is particularly important if the place has changed a number of times, such as county boundary changes or towns that have changed hands several times due to wars or other political upheavals.

One example where I frequently find the problem of applying the latter jurisdiction is in deaths of pioneers on the Plains. Nebraska became a state on March 1, 1867, but I commonly find Nebraska listed as the place of death for pioneers who died before that date. The reason for the rule is quite simple, records follow or are found in the jurisdiction where the event occurred. In some instances the records may have moved several times depending on jurisdictional changes, but if you ignore the starting point, i.e. the place where the event occurred, you may never be able to follow the trail. What is also commonly overlooked, is that you may need to search in all of the historical jurisdictions, not just in the one where the event occurred, but in each succeeding jurisdiction until you are convinced that you have searched appropriately in each jurisdiction. In some of the Eastern seaboard states, a town may have been in multiple counties, any one of which could have the records you are looking for depending on whether the county sent the records on to the new county or kept the records in its own repository.

The other side of this rule is don't assume that the location information recorded in someone else's file is inaccurate merely because you think the county is wrong. I very well could be wrong, but you need to check out the location of the town at the time of the reported incident.

As Joe E. Lewis is supposed to have said, "You can lead a horse to water, but if you can get him to float on his back, you've got something." We can talk and talk about citing the name of the place at the time of the incident or fact, but I can probably find a number of counter-examples from my own database. Also, be care of standardized place names. Standardized anything in genealogy is probably a very bad idea if it means losing information in the original.

1 comment:

  1. James, thanks for the thoughtful response. I struggle with this issue to the point that I spend time trying to standardize my data instead of entering source citations, etc. Each genealogy database program has it's own method for tracking event locations, and the trend toward online mapping only exacerbates the problem. And it isn't just geographic locations. The hospital I was born at is still there, but not with the same name. I think standardized anything in genealogy is still a long way off, if ever attainable.