Standardizing Place Names

+14 votes

A couple of us are talking about whether we can appropriately standardize the name for pre 1776 Virginia.  An option that we don't like is "Virginia, British North America" because, as someone noted in a previous conversation on place names, British North America refers to post-1776 Canada.

You can look up and see these terms are used in loose priority order:

  • Colony of Virginia
  • Virginia Colony
  • Province of OVirginia
  • Dominion and Colony of Virginia
  • Most Ancient Colloney
  • Dominion of Virginia

Our recommendation is to try to standardize on Virginia Colony for any events prior to 1776, although one state to the north is Province of Maryland.  

What are others' thoughts on this?  


WikiTree profile: Richard Bennett
in Policy and Style by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (385k points)
I like the "ring" to Virginia Colony.  Short, sweet, and to the point.  Most everyone will know what it refers to.  It also sounds authentic, like how people would have referred to Virginia before 1776.  Colony of Virginia is rather cumbersome in my view.
I also like Virginia Colony and have the same question about Louisiana and many other states.
For me it would seem that we get the county names straight. It does seem that most of the time it's obvious when you say Virginia, it's the same Virginia. The counties really tell you where something was. And the county tells you if it's an area of Virginia that became part of another state.

The problem is that to get them correct, you have to have a diagram in front of you. That would be tedious.

Just a note of clarification: US Southern Colonies project shows that it covers colonial Virginia up to the date that Virginia ratified the Constitution on June 25, 1788, at which point the US History project's subproject for Virginia takes over. So it's not "pre-1776" but "pre-June 25, 1788" that we're talking about. (Personally, I think either Virginia or Virginia Colony is fine - just not USA before the Commonwealth of Virginia became part of the United States.)

Cheers, Liz

The Library of Virginia includes the following in its FAQs:

From the Hornbook of Virginia History, 4th ed., page 88:

The most popular and enduring of Virginia's many nicknames is the Old Dominion. While this name clearly refers to Virginia's status as England's oldest colony in the Americas, it is impossible to trace the origin of the term with precision.. In 1660 Charles II acknowledged a gift of silk from "our auntient dominion of Virginia." In 1663 Virginia's new seal bore the motto En dat Virginia Quintum (Behold, Virginia gives the fifth), recognizing the colony's status alongside the king's other four dominions of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. As early as 1699, the phrase "most Ancient Colloney and Dominion" appeared in official state documents.

A search in the error database on Location Virgina gives an indication what people use....

Magnus, what an amazing list of errors!  Looks like it covers more than Virginia -- once I had the file open I did a "find" search on Maryland and found 46 entries.  I don't know if this covers all the errors in WikiTree, but it certainly is a great resource for anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours fixing things!


It covers all logical errors that Aleš has defined.... I do searches on Swedish locations and fix things I can....

My understanding is that Mr WikiTree wizard Aleš has indexed locations and that means we can search on locations and get a feeling what people has added in the fields. Problem is that we just see those profiles with errors not the profiles good WikiTree citizens manage....

Take some time look around at he has some cool merge reports plus at the bottom you have statistics....

Bic pic

Depends on the goal: If the goal is accuracy, then I think that place names should be what is found in the primary source materials with the names of the individuals. The idea of "standardized names" sounds like revisionism. If the goal is only to communicate approximate locations in a modern database with no authority, then it is okay to change the data.
Thanks, Todd.  As an historian. I'm with those who prefer historical accuracy!

5 Answers

+7 votes
Best answer
I prefer Virginia as one word without USA afterwards.
by Vincent Piazza G2G6 Pilot (242k points)
selected by Living Vincent
Vincent, are you referring to pre-independence or post-independence Virginia?  Or both?
Pre-independence.  And afterwards, Virginia, USA.
+6 votes

I've been using Colony of Virginia, based on the same source you cite.  You may also want to read the previous discussion on this forum regarding standardizing place names.

by Star Kline G2G6 Pilot (566k points)
Star, thanks for linking to the previous discussion, which seems to go quite against the current WikiTree policy, which I also found:
+3 votes
I use Virginia Colony. But I noticed Virginia Comon Wealth on some documents recently.
by Anonymous Roach G2G6 Pilot (186k points)
It would be "Commonwealth of".  But that is still in use, so not a good choice.  We really don't need anything.  Anybody who can't figure out what/where Virginia was in 1600s and 1700s isn't capable of doing colonial American genealogy anyway.
Virginia has been the "Commonwealth of Virginia" since it adopted its first constitution independent of Great Britain on June 29, 1776, and that remains its official name today.  During Colonial days, it actually did call itself the "Commonwealth of Virginia between 1649 and 1650, in parallel with the Commonwealth government of Oliver Cromwell in England between the reigns of Charles I and Charles II.  Unless one is being VERY precise, however and referring to a birth, death or marriage in the time period 1649-1650, one would not use "Commonwealth" to describe colonial Virginia.
But simply "Virginia" doesn't mean anything since most of Tennessee and West Virginia were referred to as "Virginia".

You really do need to know your history to accurately use place names on the American frontier.  "Six counties—WashingtonSullivan, and Greene in East Tennessee; and DavidsonSumner, andTennessee County in Middle Tennessee—had been formed as western counties ofNorth Carolina between 1777 and 1788."  (Wikipedia, History of Tennessee).  These six, plus two other counties in present day Tennessee, formed the State of Franklin, which ruled the area from 1784-1789, though it was never recognized as a State.  So officially, they would still be North Carolina births/marriages/deaths.  In 1789 with the ratification of the Constitution, North Carolina ceded the lands to the Federal Government, which named it the "Southwest Territory."  In 1796, Tennessee applied for Statehood and became the 16th State.  

The counties of present-day West Virginia were all part of Virginia until the Civil War;  when they did not want to join the Confederacy, they ceceded from Virginia and became their own state in the Union.  Some county names also changed.  So dates of birth, marriage and death before the Civil War will be in different states than dates in the same places after the Civil War.

Should genealogy follow these changes?  Yes, by all means -- for genealogy is a subdivision of history.  Of course, the narrative can say that these are all places in present-day Tennessee or West Virginia -- but what's the point of doing genealogy if one isn't going to be accurate?

For Virginia counties, past & present, I find this site extremely helpful:

As leader of the Virginia subproject (post-USA, under the United States History Project), I've been working on developing a single table for Virginia's counties - thanks to this discussion, I found another WikiTree category (Nansemond County). It's still in progress, but see this section of the space page Virginia Counties and Parishes.

If anyone would like to join the post-USA Virginia project, please add something about yourself in the members section of the project page (and shoot me a private e-mail so that I can send you an invitation to the Virginia Google Group; I'll also add the US History badge if you don't already have one). If you're more interested in pre-USA Virginia, check out the Virginia subproject of the US Southern Colonies Project.

Cheers, Liz

+4 votes
For pre-1776 state names, I like using '''Colony''' with the name of the state because the early ''Colonists''were given land grants by English lords, England being a ''Colonial power''.

It just seems to make clear the chain of land rights and government that directed the ''colonization'' of the New World. The pilgrims, puritans and pioneers went where they were directed to go by the ''Colonial government'' established by England (wind and seas allowing).
by April Dauenhauer G2G6 Pilot (116k points)
The PLACE we are talking about was VIRGINIA

The sort of place it was, was a Colony.

All this discussion makes me laugh - New Zealand was part of the Colony of New South Wales when Europeans first got here - try getting any Kiwi pre-1840 families to put N.S.W. (Australia) as their place place of birth & see how far you get !!
That would rile 'em up.
spotted your comment Rosemary & realized I'd made a blue - should have written "when Europeans first got here" - corrected now
Yup - and it was Colony of New South Wales from 1788.

P.S. I'm originally from Sydney.
+9 votes
Keeping it simple as Virginia.  If you don't know it was a colony, well, I'm sorry.
by Chad Olivent G2G6 (6.2k points)
Chad, the people on WikiTree who aren't from the US may very well not know that.

Oh, come on - everybody knows the story of Sir Walter Raleigh who named the area "Virginia", for Queen Elizabeth 1st

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