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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Take Time for a Geographic Timeline -- Part Three What's in a name?

One of the basic rules of genealogical research is that of recording place names as they were at the time an event occurred in an ancestor's life. There are two implications of this policy: first, the use of the place name current at the time of the event, presupposes that the genealogist has done his or her homework and actually knows how the place was designated, and second, the further implication is that upon searching for records, the accurately recorded place name will assist the process of finding pertinent records.

This rule is based upon the principle that records are most likely to be found associated with the various jurisdictions in effect at the time of the event. For example, military records are most likely to be maintained by the country where the ancestor lived during the time such records were recorded. Records pertaining to marriages, deaths and births (christenings) were most like kept by the church with which the ancestor was affiliated. The examples could go on for each type of record.

From the time of the creation of the record, until the present time, the record could have migrated to another location. For example, a military record may have been created in an area of Europe that has changed hands several times since the date of the record's creation, thus causing the record to be moved as international boundaries changed. The same set of circumstances can happen on a much smaller scale in the United States as county boundaries change over time. Records created at the county level could have been moved as new counties were created from the old.

This rule concerning the accurate recording of the place of an event at the time the event occurred also presupposes that the place where the record has ultimately been found will also be recorded as a citation when the record is used to support a genealogical conclusion. The main point here is that the places, as they are named today, bear little or no relationship to the location of the records about the ancestor. For example, a record about a Native American ancestor may have been created on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and is most likely presently maintained by the National Archives. If you were to find the records, you would ultimately learn that they are being maintained in the National Archives branch in Kansas City, Missouri. The purpose of the citation to a record is to provide a way for subsequent researchers to find the same records to verify the basis for the researcher's conclusions.

What about place names that have changed over time? One common mistake is to locate the place of an event in a town, city, county, state or country that did not even exist at the time of the event. This is sometimes done because the researcher is not aware of the changes in the name of the place, but most frequently is done out of simple negligence arising from a lack of awareness of the historical context of the record. I was recently asked a question about how to record a place when an event occurred before the U.S. Revolutionary War. The answer is simple and is best posed as a question: how was the place designated at the time of the event? I would further ask another question: is the name any different than the one used today? Let's suppose that the place was Plymouth, Massachusetts. How would I identify the place for an event that occurred in that place? Here are some suggested dates and places:
  • Plymouth Colony, New England or the Plymouth Council for New England prior to 1685; today the records might be in the U.S. or the U.K.
  • Plymouth, Plymouth County, Dominion of New England between 1686 to 1689
  • Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Commonwealth of Massachusetts after 1691
  • Plymouth, Massachusetts of Massachusetts Bay after 1692
  • Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts 
  • Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States after 1776 (or 1882) depending on how you want to consider the issue
You could also consider the following: from 1643 to 1686 the area was included in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and some sources include the area in the New England Confederation from 1643. Now this is what I have found so far. If you happen to have any corrections you are very welcome to make a comment and I will correct the list. It turns out to be far from simple to figure out which organization had jurisdiction at what time. 

You may well ask why we need to go through all of those iterations? What we are doing is keeping track of the places where documents (records or sources) might be found. Each of those jurisdictions are likely to have records that are stored or maintained or, at least, cataloged differently than the next jurisdiction in time. As you can see from the list above, this can be a difficult task.

For previous posts in this series see:


  1. Not quite on topic, but I wish the so-called standard didn't lead people to write names like "Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States". Those who aren't adept in the standard will wonder why "Plymouth" is quoted twice, not realising that the two uses represent two different entities. What gets worse is interpreting a name like "Brockton, Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States". I will guarantee that many people will think this means that Brockton is a suburb of Plymouth. Not good for following up source records!

    It would make sense if the county names included "county", e.g. "Brockton, Plymouth county, Massachusetts, United States". (Indeed the GNIS name seems to include "County").

    I realise I'm on dodgy ground coming from UK family history which almost never includes "county" in its placenames - but in our defence, most county names over here include "shire" or are unique to the county (e.g. "Essex"). Where there is confusion, we always add "County", e.g. "County Durham".

    1. That is a very interesting comment. It is quite common for there to be a town or city with the same name as the county here in the U.S. For example we have Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. The most confusion comes when the city or county are omitted and there is a confusion over whether or not the city or county is intended as the location.

  2. Why don’t we include “County” in place names despite the confusion the lack can sometimes cause?

    I have a theory that it is because standards can sometimes be arbitrary, traditional, or based on factors that no longer apply rather than being appropriately evaluated and updated as needed.

    The pamphlet “Lessons in Genealogy” published in 1915 includes as an illustration the standard family record sheet of the day. Place names are recorded in columns headed by the terms “Town,” “County,” and “State or Country.” Obviously one did not write “County” as part of the place name because the term was at the top of the column.

    Likewise, standard paper Family Group Sheets used through the late 1900s had, for the children, distinct columns for “City or Town,” “County,” and “State or Country” even though the place names for the parents no longer had those labels. It was easy to see on the form which part of a place name was the county and redundant to write “Salt Lake County” in a column labeled “County.”

    When genealogy software first was being written, storage considerations were important and programming techniques primitive. I never used PAF, but in PAF for Mac, if I remember correctly, there were four place name fields. One for the city, one for the county, one for the state and one for the country. Each field could hold a maximum of 16 characters. Including “County” would decrease the available characters for the county name to only nine, perpetuating the tradition of not including that term. Besides, you were only supposed to enter the county name in the county field.

    Now that software and printed forms no longer label the parts of the place name, however, confusion can arise when cities and counties have the same name. One could argue that with as many resources as there are now to identify county names, there is never any reason to enter a city name without a county name and so the name just before the state name has to be the county name, but why leave the possibility for ambiguity? Aren’t we after clarity in our records?

    In Family Tree, the place name field is longer than anyone could possibly need. Why not take advantage of that, remove any possibility for anyone misunderstanding a name, reject a standard based on a one hundred year old paper form, and include “county” in the place name?