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

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Good and the Bad of Names, Dates and Places -- Part Five More About Places

The key to genealogy is identifying the places where events occurred. Names and dates are nice, but if you have the wrong place. Good luck. One of the many challenges of genealogical research is sorting out the correct levels of jurisdiction of various places around the world at different times. Today seemed to be my day for unscrambling location references. Sometimes these issues are caused by an abysmal lack of historical and geographic knowledge. In the last post in this series, I gave some examples from older Family Group Records. Unfortunately, I see the same issues even with newer files in online family trees.

Just when it is becoming possible to correctly identify geographic names and reflect the actual circumstances based on accurate online maps and information, standardized place names throw a monkey wrench into the works. These popup menus seem to appear ubiquitously in both desktop and online family tree programs, suggesting current place names, spellings and jurisdictions even when entirely inappropriate. These annoying suggestions are more than welcome when the events being entered are contemporary. But I thought that whole idea of genealogy was to go back in time?

It is unequivocal that place names change over time as political and social conditions change. If the programmers of the various database programs wanted to be really helpful, they would correlate the date of the event with the suggested place although I am not certain that all that information exists in any one database as yet. There is at least two programs, RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree, that will check the threshold issue of whether or not a U.S. county was in existence at the time of the event. But other than this one type of check, those programs with suggested "standardized" place names suggest the modern equivalent in every case and thus obscure the historically accurate location.

Another closely allied issue is that of programs suggesting a place when you start a search for records. I am not going to pick on any one program because it seems as if the programmers think they can guess what you are looking for. Let me give an example that might seem somewhat simplistic. Let's suppose that you are searching for an ancestor born in Europe and the U.S. Census entry says that the ancestor was born in "Bavaria." If you try to enter this as a birthplace in almost any of the popular database programs, online or on your computer, what do you think will happen?

In most cases, the program will take the information without question. Here is a summary of history of Bavaria from Wikipedia:
Bavaria is one of the oldest continuously existing states in Europe; it was established as a stem duchy in the year 907. In the 17th century, the Duke of Bavaria became a Prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. The Kingdom of Bavaria existed from 1806 to 1918, and Bavaria has since been a free state (republic). Modern Bavaria also includes parts of the historical regions of Franconia, Upper Palatinate and Swabia.
It would be nice if it were just that simple. Rather than reproduce the entire history of the place, I would refer you to several online sources in addition to the Wikipedia article:
The last entry above raises the next question. Assuming that you can sort out which entity was in existence at the time of the event in your ancestor's life, do you record the place in the language of the country or in English? And, by the way, do we record the full name of the country at the time or merely a shorthand version? 

I used to teach Spanish at a local community college here in Mesa and one question I used to ask the students in the class was the name of the state on Arizona's southern border? The most common answer, with almost no exceptions was that there was no state on Arizona's southern border. Hmm. Remember, I was teaching Spanish. So what is the answer? Sonora is the name of the state to the south of Arizona. So, now what is the name of the country to the south of Arizona? Remember again, I am teaching Spanish and the "country" is less than 200 miles away from the classroom. Do you know? 

OK, I won't keep you in suspense, the name of the country is the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. See CNN, "After nearly 200 years, Mexico may make the name official."

The question is how do we, as genealogists, record this information. Do we record this in English or Spanish? When is translating the place name into English proper in genealogy? Should all the different people around the world translate their record of place names into their own language? Should Salt Lake City, Utah be recorded as the Ciudad del Lago Salado?

I mentioned at the start of this series that the issue of place names was likely very complicated. It is. Will the standard place name suggestions in the programs give you Estados Unidos Mexicanos?


  1. Roots Magic also looks up places based on the date. I often get messages saying that such-and-such a county was not organized until xxxx or similar messages. It also indicates the states prior to 1776 as British America rather than United States.

  2. "do you record the place in the language of the country or in English?"
    Seems to me that the question can be split into two.
    1. Entering the place-name in the details about the source.
    2. Entering the place-name in your conclusions about the person.

    Logically, the details about the source should use the place-name in the language used in the source. Minimal change. This might result in a mix, of course - suppose a German language document were hosted on an English language web-site. The citation might well end up with the English collection name (where to find it) and a German document title (with translation as an *extra*?) No doubt ESM has something to say on this...

    2. As for your conclusions - well, they need to be readable so there's a good argument for saying put them in English. (Yes, spot the assumption there.) Referring to someone as living in Bayern is fine - except that to those who have heard of the name only in conjunction with Bayern Munich, they might wonder why someone is living at a football club. (Sorry, soccer).


    1. Thanks, you did a better job of analyzing the need for a complete citation than I mentioned.