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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Place Names and History: The place at the time

Covering: Dulwich, Brixton, Denmark Hill, Herne Hill, Stockwell, Peckham, Nunhead, Camberwell and Lambeth. LSE reference no. BOOTH/E/1/11 Printed Map Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-1899

It is a basic historical fact that place names change over time. There is also a well-known, genealogical rule that we record place names as they were at the time an event occurred in our ancestors' or relatives' lives. There are a number of basic reasons why place names change and the reasons include the following:
  • Changes in political jurisdictions such as from British Colonial America to the United States of America or changing county boundaries
  • Changes due to socio-political pressure such as a mountain in Phoenix, Arizona that was renamed Piestewa Peak from its previous name of Squaw Peak 
  • Changes because of bureaucratic rules such as the town named St. Joseph being changed to Joseph City due to "too many places with the same name on the train route"
  • Changes due to conquest such as the fact that the country of Poland did not exist after it was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1772, 1773 and 1795
  • Changes due to traditional, local names being renamed for a famous person such as the Argentine city of La Plata being renamed Ciudad de Eva Peron
Some places have undergone a whole series of changes. Parts of Phoenix, Arizona have gone through several name changes: Swillings Mill became Hellinwg Mill which became Mill City which became East Phoenix and ultimately just Phoenix. 

The reason for recording events with the place name that existed at the time is to preserve the history and also to enable historians to find a record originating in the location with the historic name. Genealogically and historically valuable records are created at or near the time an event occurs by someone who had an interest in the event or a duty to record it. The ultimate disposition of the record almost always depends on where and when it was created. 

How does this relate to the "Standard Names" in the Family Tree program? Standardization in the Family Tree is intended to help clarify the information entered and assist in matching events to existing historical records. For these reasons, FamilySearch as adopted the long-standing genealogical rule that places be recorded as they existed at the time of the event. For example, an event that occurred in Arizona in 1875 should be recorded as follows:

St. Joseph, Apache, Arizona Territory, United States

Instead of the current name as follows:

Joseph City, Navajo, Arizona, United States

To accurately record the place names may require some detailed historical investigation and significant effort, but the results will be increased accuracy and a higher probability that records of the event will be located. 


  1. Yes. Except....

    There never was a jurisdiction named "British Colonial America". It's a description with no precise definition. Does it include bits of Canada? (Whatever that means!) The American colonies were (for the most part) separate.

    And the Family Search standard place names are peculiar indeed if they exclude (as they do) East and West Germany or North and South Vietnam in favour of just Germany or Vietnam.

    I totally agree with the idea - unfortunately all sorts of prejudices get in the way.

    1. Hmm. I agree with your comment. I will have to think this over and decide exactly how I think this should work. I am certain that I am not going to put United States. But that still raises an issue as to when the U.S. is considered the place: 1776 or 1782?

  2. Wikipedia asserts that the proper term was "British America".
    Wikipedia cites as its authority Thomas Jefferson's usage of the term in 1774.

    I believe that genealogical database software should evolve to faciliate users easily recording event locations BOTH ways -- contemporary with the event, and modern. This would enable online map developers to create products that accurately show on current maps where events took place.

    1. I certainly agree. I have written about that and talked about that many times. I don't think that comments and notes are sufficient to properly explain the changes.