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Monday, December 16, 2013

Researching Boundary Changes in Europe

One of the threshold levels of awareness of a newly minted genealogical researcher is to begin to understand that geographically defined jurisdictions change over time. Once the researcher begins to dig into the history of the area where each ancestor lived and commences to verify how the various levels of source creating entitles lined up, real progress is possible in discovering valuable information about ancestors. The problem of establishing county boundaries in the United States is trivial when compared to the challenge of sorting out the political boundaries in Europe at any given time in the past. This is where maps and history become the constant companion of the genealogical researcher.

The Times atlas. Containing 117 pages of maps, and comprising 173 maps and an alphabetical index to 130,000 names. Published at the office of "The Times," Printing House Square, London, E.C. 1895. (colophon:) Cassell & Company. Limited, Belle Sauvage Works, London, E.C.
One of the first places to start your search for records of ancestors in Europe (and elsewhere) is to establish exactly where they lived. Easily said, difficult to accomplish in many cases. The research should concentrate on the country where the ancestor died, rather than the country where the ancestor was born. In other words, if the ancestor immigrated to the United States and died in the United States, then efforts to find the ancestor's place of origin should be focused on the United States rather than fishing in Europe or elsewhere. But once you find the "place" where the ancestor was born, that is only the beginning of the search.

When I write about the "place" I am excluding all the vague references to "Germany" or "Russia" contained in the U.S. Federal Census records. Those references are not a ticket to search in Europe. The place name must be much more specific than any name of any country. If you want to get into a detailed discussion of the process of searching for origins, go to the FamilySearch Research Wiki on United States Emigration and Immigration.

Ultimately, you have to go to the maps of the place you determine is where your ancestors lived in the "Old Country." The above map came from, a very useful site for finding specific historical maps of any part of the world. There are also extensive lists of links to map sites on various library websites:

There are a lot more sites with links and maps, just keep looking. Then there are websites that catalog the name changes of locations in Europe. One of the challenges is figuring out how to spell the name of the place identified by U.S. research. Over time, the various locations in Europe (and elsewhere) have changed names as the rulers of that particular area have changed. Here are a few sites to get you started:
There are dozens of more such websites. Just keep looking for place name changes on Google. That should get you started. 


  1. Another thing to watch for is anachronisms when it comes to records that have been transcribed, indexed or... I'm not sure what the word is (related to transcription, but somewhat different since it is taking the place of the original record), but when the original record is in such poor condition that someone takes the time to create a new copy of it, but has taken some liberties and changed names of places to reflect new names or situations. I've noticed this in the Wisconsin State Census for 1895 and 1905 - even though the records themselves say that people born in the Russian Empire were born in "Russia", the index says that they were born in the Soviet Union, even though the Soviet Union did not exist until 1917. Not to mention that in the case of the people I was looking for, the area of the Russian Empire that they were from was not a part of the Soviet Union until was forcibly annexed in 1941. I'm not sure when the index was created, but given that there has been no Soviet Union for 22 years, that is a further problem in Ancestry's databases, since "Soviet Union" is not an appropriate for the time of the original record or now.

    1. Thanks for the comment. That helps to explain the problems associated with how the place names were recorded.

  2. Not only are "Germany" and "Russia" in the U.S. censuses vague and unspecific, they are frequently mis-leading. I have found that the changing borders of the 19th and 20th centuries led people to answer birthplace questions with their ethnicity or previous nationality. Look for patterns in multiple census years and note languages.
    Research to determine an actual location can be aided by looking at migration patterns (when did immigrants from a particular area start arriving) and surname origins.
    Placenames might be mis-spelled or in a language or dialect current in the region. Watch out for the habit of substituting the nearest larger town or county name. Placenames in the local records are usually in the same language as the rest of the record. (Some placenames may be in the preferred form of the person of the record).
    GOV [] is useful for large parts of middle Europe, with the added benefit of visual representations of historical hierarchies and links to text and maps.
    Wikipedia also has tables of exonyms []
    When a placename is not recognizable, I use the Fuzzy Gazetteer [] .

    1. All of your comment are very good suggestions. Thanks for adding some valuable information.

  3. This tool may help with country boundary changes over time:

    While the boundaries are rough in many cases, it does help visualize the major changes in country boundaries going back hundreds of years.

  4. Did you know there is a great resource for european places? The GOV (Genealogisches Ortsverzeichnis), Genealogical Gazetteer!

    I'll be also at Rootstech 2014 to show all details about GOV on developers day :)