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

Monday, August 12, 2013

Wherein I once again take on the threat of standardized place names...

I must like running full tilt into brick walls. Every so often I am possessed with the desire to reform the computer programming world and try to convince them to learn a modicum of genealogy before they begin writing programs for genealogists. So far, my efforts have done little but give me massive headaches with no effect on the wall. Well, it is once again time to test the thickness of my head bones against the massive brick wall of standardized place names.

Somewhere, sometime, a computer programmer got the idea that their life would be easier if all the place names in the world were standardized. Wow. This was a superb idea but ignored the fact that place names change over time. The same town in Yavapai county ended up in Apache County, which subsequently became Navajo County, while the name of the town changed also. Hmm. To add a little historic interest Arizona became a state during the same time period. Unfortunately for standardization, that means there are a number of names for exactly the same geographic location:

Allen's Camp, Yavapai, Arizona Territory, United States
St. Joseph, Yavapai, Arizona Territory, United States
St. Joseph, Apache, Arizona Territory, United States
St. Joseph, Navajo, Arizona Territory, United States
St. Joseph, Navajo, Arizona, United States
Joseph City, Navajo, Arizona, United States

All the same place. Can you guess which one of these is suggested as the "Standardized Place Name?" I can give you a hint, it isn't any of the first five. Do you know which one to choose if your ancestor was born in this location in 1890? What about a birth in 1876? Of course, this only matters if you follow the long settled and long propounded genealogical rule to record the name (and jurisdiction) of the place at the time of the event. Before the advent of standardized place names, you had to think a little before you choose one or the other (not that most of my relatives did so, but it is nice to dream). Now, when you type in any of the above, you either get nothing in the way of help from the program or you get a suggestion that you are wrong with anything but the standardized, current place name.

So, if I use any one of the many programs with built-in standardized place names, the program will try to change or entice me to change what I have and put in a more acceptable modern-day, sanitized, non-controversial, politically corrected version of the place name. Now, the issue is not standardized vs. non-standardized, the issue is using a standardized method to record place names, not a standardized name. I am aware that most of the programs out there will accept a non-standardized place name and even allow you to make your own list of standard place names, but the problem is that this seldom happens, I see the actual place name of the event obliterated by the standard name too many times.

Here is the substantiation for the county and name changes:

Yavapai County was one of the original counties of Arizona Territory created on 10 November 1864 (Howell Code, Ariz. Terr. Laws 1864, 1st assy., ch. 2/ pp. 24-25)

The original settlement in 1876 was named Allen's Camp and was changed to St. Joseph in 1878. See Tanner, George S., and J. Morris Richards. Colonization on the Little Colorado: The Joseph City Region. Flagstaff: Northland Press, 1977, page 36.

Yavapai lost the area where the settlement was on 14 February 1879 to the newly created Apache County. (Ariz. Terr. Laws 1879, 10th assy./ pp. 96-97)

On 21 March 1895, the area was divided off of Apache County to create Navajo County. (Ariz. Terr. Laws 1895, 18th assy./ pp. 96-105)

On 14 February 1912, Arizona became the 48th state. See Wikipedia:Arizona

In 1923, the name of St. Joseph was changed to Joseph City. See Tanner, George S., and J. Morris Richards. Colonization on the Little Colorado: The Joseph City Region. Flagstaff: Northland Press, 1977, page 36.

Now, of course, all that is really complicated and you couldn't expect anyone to know all that history. Could you? It is much too confusing for the newcomer and would require way too much programming in the standardized options to take into account all the boundary and jurisdictional changes in the world. Let's just pretend that none of this happened and ignore the fact that the records we are searching for may have moved with the boundary and jurisdictional changes. We can also ignore the fact that this just might be the reason we can't find our ancestor, but hey, it is a whole lot easier to program and that is what is important. 

After all, history and genealogy aren't the same thing. Like love and donuts, who needs history if you have genealogy?


  1. Good Morning James,
    Legacy at least does some of what you are asking for, if you put in a county name and that wasn't the actual name on the date of the event it is ask you to check and give you options for that. I haven't seen it come up with city options, although it might.

  2. Like you, I have a dislike of standardised place names.

    1. From a UK perspective, my dislike comes less one from changing names over time (though that happens) but mainly from the sheer impossibility of listing all places. It might be possible to list all administrative jurisdictions, but many small settlements in my history have never had "legal" existence.

    (I do wonder if we can blame the programmers for inventing the idea of standardised place names. Their first thought would have been "Where's the list coming from?").

    2. If we do insist on contemporary names, rather than current, then we need to understand that the chance of creating a map automatically ("A picture is worth a thousand words") is about zero where names have changed. Whether or not this worries us is a personal thing. (One possible way round this, is to enable the recording of events with 2 places - the contemporary and the current. Which gets us back to "How do we change the Data Model for Family History"?)

    3. Your "long settled ... rule to record the name (and jurisdiction) of the place at the time of the event" is seldom followed in the UK. In 1974, we had a massive change in our counties. In most software, "Widnes, Lancashire, England" (the pre-1974 hierarchy) and "Widnes, Cheshire, England" (the post-1974) would be regarded as two different places. (It's not, of course. It's one place with two different hierarchies). To avoid massive disruption, most (though not all) UK family historians use the pre-1974 counties to record events, regardless of era.

    1. I agree with your comments and yes, I do wonder where the lists are coming from?

  3. I don't know which software you're using, or which computer programmers have offended you James, but I'm afraid there are some rather large generalisations here. I personally believe in hierarchical place-references. However, as a software person, I have strived to implement this in a way that embraces different countries (not just the US), alternative names/spellings, and boundary changes.

    The difference is in the use of the term place-name as opposed to place-reference. Dealing with simple names - even if they happen to be hierarchical - is a little like trying to specify a person using just one of their personal names. We accept that a person has varations, and a history, and supporting documents such as photographs. The same approach can be applied to places, too, in which case a place-reference is to the collected data for that place. The printed form of that reference is then almost arbitrary.

    What about evidence, you might be asking. Well, the same analogy applies. You record a personal-name or place-name as it was written, but you can link it to the actual person or place using a digital person-reference or place-reference in your data. There's no need to re-write history, or get mired in modern-day political correctness.

    1. It looks like I need to be more specific. Sounds like another post is coming. As usual, your comments are appreciated, insightful and very helpful.

    2. "You record a personal-name or place-name as it was written, but you can link it to the actual person or place using a digital person-reference or place-reference in your data."

      @Tony - Can you give an example of this? Are you referring to using lat/long data?

    3. Finally found time to write something on place-names and place-hierarchies:

      I don't know where you find the time to generate all your own posts James.

    4. +McElrea ONS, I'm not referring to lat/long here.

      There's an example for places at:, and an example involving persons at:

  4. This is a nearly 7 year old post and things have not changed substantially in any software of which I am aware. I can understand why as I have been trying to work through this on and off for over a year for a program we are attempting to write, and my head is as bruised as yours likely is from running full tilt into brick walls. I wonder if I could impose on you to review some of my material and offer some feedback? If you are able/willing to help, please feel free to contact me at dave[at] Thanks!