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Friday, February 15, 2019

Back to the Issue of Genealogical Standardization of Place Names

Okay, we're back to the issue of standardization of place names. Standardization is exactly that, it is an attempt to establish a uniform method of doing something from manufacturing to genealogical place names. The underlying reason for working towards place name standardization is that we need to have a common way of referring to specific locations that can then be tied to GPS coordinates. This is important because of the rule that genealogically valuable records are created at or near the place that an event occurs by people who have an interest in the event or duty to report it. The duty part of the rule refers to the fact that these genealogically valuable records are created by government entities that exist at the time of the event.

This also brings up another basic rule of genealogical research that place names are recorded as they were, i.e. jurisdictionally, at the time the event occurred. So these two rules concerning the probable location of the records and the recording of the name of the place where the records may have been created are the underpinnings of all genealogical research. Ignorance of or failing to acknowledge accurate place names is the underlying cause of most of the confusion present today and the millions of online family trees. Standardization is an attempt to bring order to this confusion.

Here is a simple example. A baby born in Arizona in 1945 would have a birth certificate created pursuant to the current state statutes. If the baby was born in a hospital, the birth certificate was created by the hospital and then forwarded to the Arizona Department of Health Services which presently has the duty of preserving the record and providing copies to those who need them. Actually, the whole process is much more complicated but the summary suffices. If I wanted to look for a birth certificate for an individual born in 1945 I would have to know that he or she was born in Arizona. If I knew that the person was born in Arizona, I would need to ask the question as to which government agency might have a copy of the birth certificate. But if I did not know the person was born in Arizona where would I go to look for the birth certificate?

If I were doing genealogical research for the person born in 1945 and started looking in New York for the birth record would I find the birth record for a person born in Arizona? This may seem like an extreme example but the underlying principle is the same. Genealogical research is based on identifying a specific location of an event in a person's life. Without this geographic location which includes all of its political ramifications, it is extremely unlikely that we would be searching in the right location for the individual's records.

So why standardization? Because the identity of these political variations in the way that specific geographic locations were named generally identifies the place to start looking for records. For example, an individual farm has a specific geographic (GPS) location on the face of the earth. But over time, that same farm could have been in a number of different political entities. County boundaries could have changed and state boundaries could've changed. Those changes affect the places where records could have been created and presently could be found. So what do we do with this:
  • 1284 Wales and England under the name of England
  • 1536 Wales and England under the name of Kingdom of England
  • 1603 Wales, England, and Scotland under the name of Great Britain
  • 1707 Wales, England, and Scotland under the name of Kingdom of Great Britain
  • 1801 Wales, England, Scotland, and Ireland under the name of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
  • 1922 Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland under the name of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In this case, obviously, if a location was in either Wales or England, the name used to designate the political entity is fairly irrelevant. But if a person lived in Scotland or Ireland or Northern Ireland to name changes reflect jurisdictional changes where the records may have been kept. Unfortunately, the changes in the names as illustrated above also come with a log of political baggage. People can become offended if the wrong political designation is used.

There are a significant number of people who assume that if a person were born in Arizona then Arizona should be used as the designation even if the person was born in 1890 when Arizona did not exist as a state. They think that the distinction between Arizona and Arizona Territory is trivial and inconsequential. But here's the question. Where are the early Arizona records currently available? That may seem like a simple question but the answer is more complicated than you might think. Here is another list of dates:
  • The 1700s to 1848 Arizona was part of Mexico
  • 1848 to 1853 the part of Arizona north of Gila River was part of New Mexico Territory
  • 1853 to 1863 the southern part of Arizona was added by the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico
  • 1863 to 1912 all of Arizona was Arizona Territory
  • 1912 to present all of Arizona is the State of Arizona
There are several factors. First, there is the issue of the exact geographic location. Second, there is the issue of the time period under consideration. Third, there is the issue of the governmental agency administering the geographic area during the time period involved. Fourth, there is a historical question of where any records kept during the time of the event may have been created and where they are presently located. Fifth there is the identity of the person involved in the research.

Standardization eliminates some of the confusion concerning the changes in the geographical locations designations over time. Another factor which is to some extent geographically independent is that certain governmental agencies create records throughout an entire country. For example, United States Census records are maintained by the national government regardless of the location where the census was taken. But even knowing that U.S. Census records are maintained at a national level still requires that the general location of a person be known or a search would have to be made of the entire census. Today, because we have digitized records with search engines that can search the entire country some of the issues have been resolved but how do we tell the difference between people with similar names if we have no idea where they lived? We always come back to the issue of identifying the geographic location.

The main challenge presently with standardization is coming up with accurate designations of the locations reflected by the time periods involved. For example, has made some efforts to include time periods in the standardization suggestions. Some genealogical programs, such as RootsMagic, will indicate whether or not a county designation is proper depending on the time frame of the entry. It is certain, that as time passes standardization will become more prevalent and more accurate.

Those who ignore standard place names and think that standardization is trivial or unimportant are missing the entire basis for accurate genealogical research.


  1. Guilty as charged. What is my punishment? Having more time to do actual research than doing the extremely boring task of correcting 120,000 place name entries (well, maybe only half of them...) one person at a time.

    I have not been changing the correct place names in my FamilySearch Family Tree profiles but I have not been adding them to my RootsMagic tree either. Of course, some of the "correct" place names in FSFT don't match the standards.

  2. A very good example of a place where Familysearch have not got the correct standardised place name is Dublin in the 19th century. From 1801 to 1921 Dublin was part of the United Kingdom. Therefore the correct standardised place name for it is Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland, United Kingdom during that period. That is the case for the whole of Ireland during that time period.