Changing Place Names in Genealogy Research

The names of places change over time and finding accurate ones is necessary

It doesn't take long for a genealogical researcher to find that place names can get rather slippery. Not only are we faced with boundary changes in cities, counties, states and countries but even very local areas can change their names from time to time. My own state of Arizona is no exception. Like most states in the the United States, it started out with only a few counties covering the vast areas of the State. The original four counties, Mohave, Yuma, Yavapai and Pima were established in the relatively late year of 1864. Because of the size of the area and the lack of communication and population, Arizona has ended up with 15 counties at the present time.

Of course, the rather simple changes in Arizona are no match for states such as Pennsylvania and New York and other Eastern States. The entire United States is also no match for almost any place in Europe, simply because of the time periods and changes in international boundaries that have occurred. To add to the overall genealogical confusion, many genealogists persist in applying current place names to events that occurred at time periods when the names were unknown or simply did not apply.

This lack of correspondence between dates and places has a disastrous effect on research. Ignorance of boundary changes runs rampant among the name collectors and others who lack the background to even be aware of the problem. As I teach classes, I regularly repeat the admonition to record the name of the place as it was at the time of the event, only to have questions and surprise from the class participants.

Trying to find out the name of the county at the time of an event is a rather trivial issue. Online tools, such as the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, make tracking county changes relatively easy. One of the very first things I do when I talk to someone about an ancestor for the first time is to take a few minutes to verify the state and county boundaries at the time period in question. Frequently, the county named in the researcher's records is wrongly identified.

Why is all this important? The answer is that genealogically significant records are recorded at or near the time and place the event occurred and in the jurisdiction at the time. If an event occurred in a location when there was a subsequent boundary change the records could have gone to different places. The possibilities can be stated as follows:

  1. The records stayed in the existing jurisdictional entity
  2. The records moved to the new jurisdictional entity
  3. The records were archived in another location
  4. The records were destroyed

This covers most of the iterations, but there are always unexpected results. Of course, tracking the records is a different challenge if you are talking about a county boundary change in the United States or on the other hand, an international boundary change between Germany, Poland and Russia. Conquering empires had and have a tendency to change all the names of all the places as well as the boundaries of local and national subdivisions.

I have often estimated, from my own experience, that fully 2/3 of the so-called "brick wall" problems in genealogy are caused by searching for records in the wrong place. Before searching for names and dates, genealogy should be primarily a search for accurate places. Many seemingly benign issues turn into major obstacles when the researchers ignore geography and assume that the places named in the records they have from their aunt or grandmother or whomever are correctly stated.

It would be nice to wave a magic wand and have these geographically related problems disappear, but that will not happen.

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

Need help finding more records? Try our genealogical records directory which has more than 1.3 million sources to help you more easily locate the available records.

Related Topics