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

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Record the place at the time of the event

There were a number of serious comments to my recent post about online family trees and some of the comments merit a response. The first question concerns sources and the citation of the location of an event. The question is this" Is it necessary to cite the location of the event that existed at the time the event occurred or is it OK to default to the name of the place as it is known today?

The answer is quite simple to this question. Any reference (and I mean any reference at all) to an event should always (and I mean always) as far as humanly possible, refer to the name of the location of the event as applied at the time the event occurred. Period. No question.

Over the years, I have had a huge number of inquiries that start out like this, "My family (relatives, I etc.) have been looking for my great-uncle (aunt, grandfather, great-grandfather etc. fill in the blank) for over ten (twenty, thirty etc.)  years without success and we were wondering if you could help?" I have found that the majority of all of these so-called brick-wall issues are due to looking in the wrong place. Many times this occurs because someone recorded the event location as it was at the time it was recorded and not at the time the event occurred. I could give a hundred or more examples of this problem but I will suffice with one or two.

In my last post, I mentioned my Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner's birth information. He was born in the settlement of San Bernardino, California in 1852. The date of his birth is likely contained in a thousand online family trees and that is not an exaggeration, but likely an understatement. I have seen hundreds of these trees and except for one or two, including my own, not one of those people have bothered to record the correct county information at the time of his birth. I would guess, like some of the comments I received, that most would say, who cares? So what? What difference does it make? The LDS ordinances have been done, so who cares? And so forth. Comments I have heard time after time after time. The point is, it does matter. Maybe there is nothing crucial about Henry Martin Tanner that would need to be known by having the correct birth jurisdiction of Los Angeles County rather than the incorrect, San Bernardion County, but in some cases, it will be the key to moving back in a genealogical line.

I learned this lesson the hard way, through trial and error. I was looking for a death certificate for my Grandfather, LeRoy Parkinson Tanner. He was killed in a truck/train accident in 1944 in Grants, New Mexico. It took me a few minutes to find out that Grants, New Mexico is in Cibola County. Guess what? That information had me looking for a considerable time for the death certificate. It could not be found. What was the key to finding the record in about 10 minutes after I figured out the problem? The records were grouped by their county of origin and in 1944 Grants was in Valencia County.

It may not matter to you as a researcher now, but if you record the information with your own contemporary location, rather than with the location as it existed at the time of the event, you may be sending future researchers off on a wild goose chase that can last years.

That issue with the location of San Bernardino in the incorrect county at the time of the event has not only been perpetuated in thousands of individual family trees, but nearly a dozen printed surname books.

In the Western United States, these issues are not so crucial, but if you are doing research in an eastern state or Europe or somewhere else in the world, an incorrect location can obscure the correct one for a long time. This is easier to see when the person recorded the information at the time, but not completely or exactly. I have seen this problem when someone's family history said the person was born in Russia and in fact, they were Polish or German born. Because the person did not recognize that the location of their birth was not in Russia at the time, but part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or some other jurisdictional change.

I ran across this issue some considerable time ago when I was asked to help someone whose ancestor came from North Carolina. This was another situation where the search had been made in the modern county and over the time period the researcher was looking, the counties had changed considerably. He was not happy when I informed him that he likely needed to look in almost any of the now-existing counties in eastern North Carolina for his information. But further discussion revealed that the information about the place of birth had not been recorded accurately and there was no way to tell where the ancestor had been born without further research. Why had this family spent years searching for this ancestor without realizing this information. Because the event had been recorded with an inaccurate time depth association.


  1. James:
    I do not know if you are aware of the 2008 article by Gary Mokotoff in Avotaynu XXIV, No.3, Fall 2008: "A Proposed Standard for Names, Dates and Places in a Genealogical Database." He addresses some of the same issues from the perspective of one dealing with Eastern European boundary changes and village name changes.

  2. One thing that should be mentioned is to put in a note that you recorded that event accurately for the time period and that the county, state, whatever has changed. Then in the note state the current location. That way when someone does stumble upon the conflicting places they will understand why.