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Monday, April 15, 2013

The Location Quandry

The common rule for citing geographic locations in genealogy is to record the place as it was at the time the event occurred. Are there exceptions? What if the political jurisdiction or name of the place no longer exists? How do you record places that cannot be identified but are recorded historically?

This particular issue is complicated by current genealogical database programs the try to use standardized locations or that refuse to allow a location outside of their own geographic database. To get to the answer, I need to give a couple of examples.

My Great-great-Grandfather is commonly reported to have died on 12 June 1866 in Omaha, Nebraska. A quick check of the history easily discloses that Omaha, Nebraska is located in Douglas County, so shouldn't the location be recorded as Omaha, Douglas, Nebraska? Well, that might work if he had been driving a car on the freeway when he died, but he happened to be traveling in a wagon across the Plains to Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, Utah. Oops. Both of these geographic locations are historically wrong. Although Omaha was founded in 1854 as was Douglas County, he didn't die in Omaha, he died out on the Plains. This issue is even more complicated by the fact that his name was Jens Christiansen, one of the most common Danish names in existence. In addition, the location of his grave is unknown. So how do you record the death place?

Moving on, in 1866, the situation in Salt Lake was a little more complicated. At that time the City was known as "Great Salt Lake City" and was so called until 1868. The state was another matter, at that time it could either be called Utah Territory or the State of Deseret, depending on your political views. The State of Deseret was not completely abandoned until the coming of the railroad in 1869. So at the least, shouldn't the Utah destination be recorded as Great Salt Lake City, Utah Territory? What about the county? Guess what? The county was also named Great Salt Lake County in 1866. So how should all this be recorded in a present-day genealogical database? And who cares anyway? Why not just record the current geographic location and forget about it? Oh, by the way, of course the State of Deseret no longer exists so why use that name at all?

The real question here is whether or not recording the location as it is today will help or hinder future research? This issue may seem trivial when you talk about Salt Lake City, Utah but can become a serious research issue in Eastern Europe when locations can change between countries speaking different languages. For example a location now in Poland could have been in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or in the Russian Empire or Russia, depending on the time period. In each case, the geographic place names changed with the dominating language. What do you record? The name in present-day Poland or the name at the time in German or Russian?

I ran into this same problem with my Mayflower ancestors. What was this country called when they got here in 1620? The United States of America or USA? Not likely. America? How much help is that? Actually, it was at some point known as Plymouth Colony, but where was Plymouth located, in the State of Massachusetts? Notwithstanding this, almost uniformly the birth places of the settlers' children and their death locations have been recorded as Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States. Oh by the way, where did the Pilgrims come from? The United Kingdom? England? Holland? The Netherlands? Check it out. You will find it is not all that simple.

So what is the solution? I suggest that the real issue here is the ability to find genealogical records. The rule about recording the place as it was at the time the event occurred is designed to increase the chances that records can be located. This becomes a real issue with changing county boundaries. Where did the records go? Try looking at Northumberland County, Pennsylvania in 1776. In the present day, there are about 15 different modern-day counties that were once part of the historical Northumberland County. Recorded locations in Northumberland can cover a lot of territory.

Well, there is a lot more to be said about this subject. But the rule is still a good one, record the place at the time of the event. But use the notes and good judgment to help succeeding researchers find the records.


  1. I'd suggest a GPS coordinate as the final answer. :)

    1. That is a very good idea and some of the programs allow you to enter coordinates or even geolocate the place.

  2. And all those folks born in Maine pre-1820 -- enter "Massachusetts" instead? (That's one circumstance where I violate your rule!)

  3. Yes I come across this quite a bit with my rural ancestors. The biggest example being in Somerset County, Maryland. There were counties forming from other counties a lot. So what is in Somerset County in 1860, was actually Wicomico County by 1870.

    In church records the biggest hurdle I cross is in Stepney Parish. None of the programs recognize it because today it is known as Allen. However, when you go and look for the records in person, you'll have to know it's Stepney Parish. You won't always get a helper who knows the complete history and can "translate" for you! It's always a good idea to have a working knowledge of the area you are researching!

  4. I had a similar problem, the place a relative was born which should be very near to where I live I had never heard of. Thanks to google maps I was able to ascertain that this small town was a ghost town by the early 1900's. I added the information to my tree as it was in the record and then added additional facts in brackets stating that the town is now a ghost town that once existed in the area of Harley in the township of Burford.

  5. A similar mistake is to place birth where a paper record was made and held (e.g., X X Monthly Meeting; or St. Barnabas' Church, which held parish records made long before the church building itself existed).

    In the case of various denominations' circuit-riders' records, such as in the Minisink region of PA-NJ-NY, this can be especially tricky since the Reformed pastor may have performed baptisms in a neighborhood and made a reference list, then recorded them in a churchbook when he got to the meeting-house across the river. Thus children of particular parents may have records of birth dates and baptism in as many as 3 different churchbooks, when the family did not move at all.

  6. The best solution to this would be if you could have AKA's for place names as you have for person names or mark that two place names are the same place. I consider the location very important in the research.