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

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Challenge of Changing Place Names

It doesn't take long for a genealogical researcher to find that place names can get rather slippery. Not only are we faced with boundary changes in cities, counties, states and countries, even very local areas can change their names from time to time. My own state of Arizona is no exception. Like most states in the the United States, it started out with only a few counties covering the vast areas of the state. The original four counties, Mohave, Yuma, Yavapai and Pima, were established in the relatively late year of 1864. Because of the size of the area and the lack of communication and, by the way, population, Arizona resisted the county forming zeal of some states in the west and elsewhere and ended up with only 15 counties at the present time.

Of course, the rather simple changes in Arizona are no match for states such as Pennsylvania and New York and other Eastern States. The entire United States is also no match for almost any place in Europe, simply because of the time periods and changes in international boundaries that have occurred. To add to the overall genealogical confusion, many inexperienced (and some experienced) genealogists persist in apply current place names to events that occurred at time periods when the names were unknown or simply did not apply.

This lack of correspondence between dates and places has a disastrous effect on research. Ignorance of boundary changes runs rampant among the name collectors and others who lack the background to even be aware of the problem. As I teach classes, I regularly repeat the admonition to record the name of the place as it was at the time of the event, only to have questions and surprise from the class participants. I could launch off into a tirade about the lack of historical knowledge of residents of the United States generally, but for the time being I will refrain.

Trying to find out the name of the county at the time of an event is a rather trivial issue. Online tools, such as the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, make tracking county changes relatively easy. One of the very first things I do when I talk to someone about an ancestor for the first time is to take a few minutes to verify the state and county boundaries at the time period in question. Frequently, the county named in the researcher's records is wrongly identified.

Why is all this important? The answer is tautological, genealogically significant records are recorded at or near the time and place the event occurred and in the jurisdiction at the time. If an even occurred in a location when there was a subsequent boundary change the records could have gone to different places. The possibilities can be stated as follows:

  1. The records stayed in the existing jurisdictional entity
  2. The records moved to the new jurisdictional entity
  3. The records were archived in another location
  4. The records were destroyed 
This covers most of the iterations, but there are always unexpected results. Of course, tracking the records is a different challenge if you are talking about a county boundary change in the United States and, on the other hand, an international boundary change between Germany, Poland and Russia. Conquering empires had and have a tendency to change all the names of all the places as well as the boundaries of local and national subdivisions. If you would like to see a huge number of articles on the subject, just do a Google search on "changing political boundaries." 

I have often estimated, from my own experience, that fully 2/3 of the so-called "brick wall" problems in genealogy are caused by searching for records in the wrong place. Before searching for names and dates, genealogy should be primarily a search for accurate places. Many seemingly benign issues turn into major obstacles when the researchers ignore geography and assume that the places named in the records they have from their aunt or grandmother or whoever are correctly stated. 

It would be nice to waive a magic wand and have these geographically related problems disappear, but that will not happen. But one thing is certain, when the baby was born, the event happened at one point and time on the face of the earth (unless the mother was in a moving ship, train, car or airplane or other conveyance). No, I do not wish to get into the details of determining where the baby was born if the airplane was flying over three or four different states. I do have a similar issue in my own family, one of my daughters was born in a place that no longer politically exists. 

Recently, I have suggested that any strictly accurate genealogical reference to a location should include the geographic coordinates where the event occurred so that present and future researchers can accurately evaluate the probability that the event occurred at that location. Most of the newer genealogy programs now available have the capability of attaching the coordinates to every event. If we all started doing this, the ambiguity of the places of events would very slowly evolve into other issues. 


  1. You may be interested in Gary Mokotoff's 2008 Avotaynu article: "A Proposed Standard for Names, Dates and Places in A Genealogical Database." It may be found online at:
    Once Jewish genealogists jump the pond to Eastern Europe, place names become complicated - sometimes changing several times before the modern era. Mokotoff recommends entering the place name where event occurred followed by (in parentheses) the contemporary name. Interestingly, I have found that when I do that in my Reunion 10 program, the application cannot locate the geographical coordinates. When I delete the old place name it works like a charm. When I add back the event place name, the program is confused once again. Oh, well. I may have to do some more research to see if there is a fix for this issue.

    1. Thanks for the link. The program should let you just enter coordinates with our without the place name. Maybe someone at Reunion should be listening.

    2. I think you mentioned this in James's blog on 16 Sep 2012 Emily. That link no longer seems to work ("Bad Request Format") but I did glance at a cached version. It's good that other people are looking at these issues but I'm afraid I found the proposals in that document deeply flawed.

  2. I have not seen any program that supports AKA for placenames that would be a good feature.

    1. I agree. It would be helpful to have a place for historical jurisdictional changes other than notes.