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

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

What about using standard place names for genealogy?

I recently got the following comment from a reader.
Have you done a blog on how to record places? I know to use the original name of the place where the event took place but have lots of question. 
How do I record places in the us before it became the U.S? British Colonies or how? What date do I use for the establishing of the U.S. How about during the Civil War do you use Confederate States?
This topic comes up regularly as I am helping people learn how to do genealogical research. Also, it has been some time since I addressed this topic and so I decided it would be a good time to see if there is anything new concerning place names in the greater genealogical community.  There is still a certain amount of controversy over the use of place names at the time of this blog post. Various online programs use different "standard" names for the same places. For example, automatically suggests the designation "United States" for the United States of America. On the other hand, automatically corrects the designation to "USA." Both are reasonably correct but they also illustrate the fact that there is no central clearinghouse in the greater genealogy community that could resolve these types of differences. It seems that this controversial topic hovers in the background but never gets completely resolved.

The existence of a controversy raises a more serious issue: is there a need for standard place names at all? My last comments on this issue were made in a blog post entitled, "Back to the Issue of Genealogical Standardization of Place Names." Here is a quote from that blog post that illustrates both the problem and the reason for standardization in the first place.
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.
The idea that identifying the physical location of genealogically and historically significant records is somehow tied to the way the records are named is a crucial concept in the process of doing research. There are several main issues going on here at the same time when we start to search for a specific genealogically or historically important record if we want to avoid the need to make broad blanket searches through a huge number of unindexed and uncataloged records. We need to know both the time and the place where the record was created and we need to know the jurisdiction where the record might have been preserved. Here is another quote from my previous post that illustrates this point.
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.
Of course, simply knowing that the jurisdiction of a place changed over time does not necessarily help you find the records but it does give you a place to start.

Both library and archive catalogs and computerized indexes give you an illusion of being able to locate records more efficiently but as you learn about both systems you soon discover that the results they provide are illusory and sporadic. OK, so going back to the questions asked at the beginning of this post, let's see if there are any answers.

Restated, the first question asks how do I record pre-1776 designations for records that were created in areas currently designated as part of the United States of America? The real question is if there were records created before 1776 in America, where would they be located presently if they exist? The answer to this question depends on the particular location and time period. For example, my ancestors arrived in what is now Utah when this part of the country was part of Mexico. Are there any Mexican records of my ancestors? The answer to that specific question is no but another similar question might have a different answer. I can illustrate the issue with another question: where would I find records of my ancestors who lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1650? Would the records be in Massachusetts or England? This is a real question. Do you happen to know where the records kept by the Massachusetts Bay Colony which was in existence between 1628 - 1686 are presently located? Would you find the records if you looked only in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which, by the way, is the correct and present name of the state? If you want to know about the Massachusetts Bay Colony Genealogy see the following in the Research Wiki:

The current designation for the British Colonies in America from is "British Colonial America." Very few people really like this designation because of the simple fact that no such designation existed during the colonial era. Have you got a better term? I don't.

What about the date for establishing the United States? By convention, I commonly use 1776. But practically speaking, you could choose 1788, the year the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified. Between 1776 and 1788 you may have to search for records in several different places.

Where are the Confederate records? Scattered all over, I am afraid. Yes, you need to designate the place as the Confederacy during the period of 1861 to 1865 because they are separately cataloged, indexed, and preserved. You also need to be aware as to when each of the Confederate States entered and left the Confederacy. Most of the records are in the U.S. War Department Collection of Confederate Records in the National Archives. See

How you designate the location of an event in a person's life really does matter and yes, the general rule is that the places should be named as they existed at the time of the event. But as you can see from this short post, there are a number of nuances that can affect the best designation.


  1. I can understand why in the days of paper genealogy we needed to enter the place name as it was at the time of event, but it's been pointless to do it that way ever since computers made it possible to use modern place names.

    Even in the old days, the excuse that as researchers we'd need to know where the records are now was pretty flimsy. If I know where the place is in the modern world, I can easily find out where the records would be -- and they're not going to be all in one place anyway.

    We're struggling needlessly with this question because not enough people are willing to re-examine the problem from the ground up.

    1. That idea works as long as there is some relationship between the "modern" place name and the historic location. For example, I may know that Rhode Island was a British Colony but if I put it in the United States in the 1600s I am unlikely to have a computer search engine help me much with that designation.

    2. Added note: especially if the records I am looking for are in England

    3. If I have a historical record for 1850 labelled Crewe, Cheshire, England, it's actually not at all clear whether that refers to the township / civil parish of Crewe in Barthomley parish (now known as Crewe Green) or the adjacent physical settlement of the railway town of Crewe in the parish of Coppenhall. Best to record what you do know and worry about interpretation in a separate "layer" later. Some temporal shifts are not clear.

    4. You did not specify if the record was a parish register or civil registration record or some other type of record and where you found the record. All of those things are just as important or more important than the location with English records.

    5. Absolutely true. The specific issue of "What does Crewe mean?" actually runs across sources - birthplaces in censuses, residences in parish registers, etc. Yes, if it's part of the document header, then the type of record will probably tell you which Crewe is being referred to. As you say, a whole raft of things to consider, not just place names.

  2. "The current designation for the British Colonies in America from is "British Colonial America." Very few people really like this designation because of the simple fact that no such designation existed during the colonial era. Have you got a better term?"
    Yes, I dislike BCA for that very reason. I don't have any pre-1776 USA events to worry about. However, I do have pre-1901 Australian events - 1901 was when the six colonies were federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia. What I do there is to leave the colony name as the *last* element of the name, omitting "Australia". The colony is the highest level jurisdiction, after all, below the British Colonial Office.
    That seems to work well enough although Geocoding events in the colony of Victoria is fun because it sometimes picks up a Victoria in British Columbia.

    So therefore I'd terminate the 13 colony names with the colony names - "Massachusetts Bay" etc.

    I think we need to be wary of trying to bundle a Wikipedia entry into a single place-name. We need to read the article to see where records *might* be but after I've found them, I tend to like place-names that say "We're not in Kansas any more" - hence I used "Grand Duchy of Finland" to refer to pre-1917 Finland, under the control of Russia (or Sweden prior to that). Even though I suspect Finnish genealogists will use Finland throughout...

  3. When listening to a webinar on AniMap, Geoff Rassmussen used as an example the town of Congamond. It has moved from Massachusetts to Connecticut; it's in a little indentation into Connecticut towards the western end.
    So iif looking for records on that town, it does change states quickly.