How To Name Places in Pre-1776 USA?

+49 votes

In merging profiles, I find many pre-1776 profiles with United Staets or USA in the place names.  I remove these in the data and in the Bios, and I also remove "New England.". But, as an example, I know there was Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Province of Massachusetts, etc., before Massachusetts was a state. If someone already has "Massachusetts Bay Colony" or some other valid jurisdiction, I leave it, otherwise, I generally leave the profile with just Massachusetts.

How should we deal with these profiles? Looking up the proper jurisdiction for each place for every profile prior to 1776 is very time consuming, and I don't think most users will do it.  Is it OK to leave a profile with Massahcusetts, when the person was born in Plymouth Colony and was  married in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and died in the Province of Massachusetts?

edit: added tag place_names

asked in Policy and Style by Vic Watt G2G6 Pilot (311k points)
edited by Liz Shifflett

just a side note in discussion on Massachusetts. it isn't & never was a "State". Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania are also Commonwealths). (I knew Mass. & Va., was pretty sure about Kentucky, but had to go searching for the fourth one... found on this Wikipedia page.)  Cheers, Liz

P.S. I delete USA also, but don't replace it with anything. I think most people can figure that the person born in 1690 in Prince George County, Virginia, for example, was born in what is now called the United State of America.

Good point, Liz! :)
Bravo! Daphne, I wish there was a "thumbs up" or applause button available for your answer. :-D
Love reading this thread ... very educational.  Off topic of the East Coast, I have the same issues with the West Coast.  I live here, and have traveled over many main and back roads.  I have ancestors who lived in the mountains and hills, on paper, they are in one county.  In real life and driving on the roads to get there ... it is in another county.  I have had people tell me my genealogy information is incorrect, because this township or that farm or ranch is not where you say it is.  Going with the topic of this forum thread ... what it was back then vs. what it is today, on paper.  And then also back then and how they travel to get there (on foot or horseback) vs. current time driving on roadways, you can not get there through one county, you have to go hundreds miles around through another county. I even experimented with the GPS system, told it where I wanted to go and following the directions, I went from highway to paved county road, paved turned into dirt road and then ... a fence and gate.  As the bird fly's (or back then on foot or horseback) it was only maybe 50 miles away.  But I had to drive several hundred miles around a mountain range, into another county, from paved roadways to dirt roads and I was there.  In this case I was looking for a family cemetery, which is there.  Real time today it is in one county, physically and on paper.  But on paper it is also in the other county, but you can not get there from there!  LOL,  And I do not think adding USA to it would help anyone from out of town ever find it. LOL.  Again love this thread, just wanted to add my two cents worth, just a tiny-tinie off topic.
I found a lot of towns in NJ that no longer exist.  What I usually do is post the old name in the profile info, and in the bio I include info regarding any county and/or state border changes and/or the current name of the town.

Please advise if this is acceptable.
Totally agree J Murray... what I have done also, what I would like to do (like whenever there is time) is to make a bio that is about the person, and then in the note/sources/or last bio paragraph put the documentation about the current place and where the source can be found.  Change of topic again, everyone has their own way of writing bio's it seems, and I will not change the style that someone has already started, I have just left notes at the very bottom (they will match up with the Changes data).  Like many others in this thread have said, we do our own way in our own genealogy program, but we submit to the WikiTree way when on WikiTree ... the funny thing is I have to agree with most every point of view given in this thread :) I love it here!
I agree with J and Virgil. I note in the biosketch, for example, that x was "born in 1850 in Virginia (present day West Virginia)". Sometimes it is more complicated, like when both counties were being subdivided and the state was being created, so then I add a 'Geographical Note' after the biosketch that gives the details of when the changes occurred and emphasizes that the person actually lived in the same place all his/her life even though it may not appear so because the names changed.

Well, it bothers me no less when RootsMagic incorrectly uses 15 November 1777 as the beginning date of the United States.

This date is problematic for at least two reasons.  First, while it's the date on which the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, it isn't the date on which the Articles took effect.  That did not happen until they were ratified by the 13th and final state, Maryland, on 1 March 1781.  Yet RootsMagic doesn't use THAT date.

The second reason, though, is the more important one.  At least from an American standpoint, the United States came into existence the moment independence was declared.  That, of course, happened not in November of 1777 or March of 1781, but on 4 July 1776.

Interestingly, the actual document identifies itself as "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America".  (But I thought "the United States" didn't yet exist?)

The concluding paragraph begins with "We, therefore, the representatives of the United States, in General Congress assembled", and goes on to do two very important things as far the "beginning" of the United States is concerned.  First, it declares "that these United Colonies are ... Free and Independent States".  And second, it renounces "all allegiance to the Crown" and declares that "all political connection between [the United States] and the State of Great Britain" is dissolved.

The "4th of July" or "Independence Day" was our first federal holiday for a reason.  Since the 1776, it has been recognized as the date on which the United States came into being.  RootsMagic has no good reason not to use THIS date, rather than the date they use.  It is, after all, the date used by the U.S. itself.

(Although, as a historical matter, the Congress actually voted on 2 July 1776 to dissolve the relationship with the Crown.  They just didn't issue the formal Declaration until the 4th, and it actually took a few more days for the Declaration to be published.)

Incidentally, some people have said that it doesn't make sense to say someone was born or died in a place that didn't exist at the time.  That's true, except that it may not be quite right to say that the place didn't exist, but only that a particular name for the place did not exist.

For example, the continent of North America clearly existed before Columbus happened to stumble across it.  It just wasn't called by that name.  (Columbus didn't call it that, either.)

It's definitely a much more precise identification to say "West Virginia" or "Ohio", than it is to say "Virginia" simply because the time referred to might predate the other states.  If someone was born in what we now call West Virginia or Ohio, the place obviously did exist.  It just may not have been called that yet -- but we can know what place is meant.

From looking at U.S. censuses, I'd say it hasn't been uncommon for people born outside the U.S. to identify their birth place (or a parent's birth place) according to what it was called at the time of the census.  That wasn't always the same as what it was when the person was born.

If the goal is an understanding of where the person was born, it may actually be more meaningful to give the contemporary name -- along with, perhaps, an explanation of what the name was at that time.

Again, though, giving the contemporary name for a place is not the same thing as naming a place that doesn't exist.  The town of Williamsburg, Pennsylvania, existed when it was Williamsburg, Bedford*; Williamsburg, Huntingdon; and Williamsburg, Blair.  Using a county name before the county existed doesn't change that -- we still know what place is being referred to.

[*I think I got a little carried away.  Huntingdon Country was created from Bedford County a few years before the establishment of Williamsburg, so I don't believe Williamsburg would ever have been in Bedford.  Still, "Williamsburg, Huntingdon" and "Williamsburg, Blair" both refer to the same place.  But if it's before 1846, Williamsburg, Blair, would be anachronistic. However, Woodbury Township, Bedford, and Woodbury, Township, Blair, are not just different names for the same place, but different places.  (Although it's possible that Blair's Woodbury Township have might once been connected to Bedford's Woodbury Township.)] 

In New England, this issue is somewhat complicated by unresolved boundaries in historical times. Massachusetts, based on its royal charter, claimed everything between its two parallels all the way west, including sections of New York. Connecticut was two colonies for a while and New Haven colony included sections of what is now Long Island. Parts of south eastern Connecticut were sometimes part of Connecticut, sometimes part of Massachusetts, and sometimes part of Rhode Island. Connecticut and Rhode Island had many boarder disputes, even as late as the 1990s (yes you read that correctly). Many town lines moved after houses were built as well, so that In Connecticut property tax laws now state that you pay taxes in the town where the home’s master bedroom is located because of the number of homes that are actually built straddling town boundaries.

21 Answers

+9 votes
Best answer
Well, while nothing may have resolved on this long discussed topic, we now have this tool.

And we can at least get rid of USA pre Declaration.  

(or maybe 1776, I am not sure how he set up the cutoff date)
answered by Michael Stills G2G6 Pilot (360k points)
selected by Dale Byers
I'm pretty sure it's set up pre 1776 which is of course pre-declaration.
That's a good one for anyone looking for a monster project.  I just ran place name=New Jersey.  It came up with 10,000 errors.  I'm not sure if it stops looking at 10,000, or just stops counting.

It stops at 10K, But it was changed so you can set custom limit.

And the date is July 4 1776. You can get better view of the error here Errors 603, 633 & 663:

BTW: this is very long discussion. What was the conclusion? Did you reach any agreement on what is correct?

I'm using RootsMagic 7, and the cutoff date for "British America" versus "United States" is indeed 15 November 1777.

Using the date of the Articles of Confederation or the U.S. Constitution makes no sense.  Neither of these documents "created" the United States.  The term has been in use at least since the Declaration of Independence, which is why we consider July 4th to be the "birthday" of the U.S.  

The significance of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution is not that either of these documents created the U.S., but that they established specific governments for the U.S.  But in fact the first "government" of the U.S. was actually the Continental Congress -- weak though it was. The members of that Congress weren't just delegates of their specific states, but representatives of the United States of America (as they themselves put it in the Declaration of Independence).

As to whether we should identify locations by what they're known as today or what they were known as then, if possible I think it would be better to use both.

In many cases, the historical designation may actually be misleading.  For example, Blair County, Pennsylvania, wasn't formed until 1846.  But prior to that year, parts of it were in Bedford County and parts were in Huntingdon County.  So first I have to figure out which parts were from which county.

Then you have some repeated names.  For instance, both Blair and Bedford have a Woodbury Township.  Now, if these were adjoining townships it might make some sense, but they're not.

In Bedford, Woodbury is in fact one of the northernmost townships.  But the township it abuts in Blair County is not named Woodbury, but North Woodbury -- and it's one of Blair's southernmost townships.  The township of Woodbury, Blair County, is not connected to North Woodbury, but lies to the north of Huston Township, which is north of North Woodbury Township.

So, if I'm talking about a location that is now in Woodbury Township, Blair County, how helpful is it to me really to identify it as Woodbury Township, Bedford County?

Using the current location makes it a whole lot easier to see very quickly that some of my families didn't move over several generations, whereas Woodbury Township, Bedford, to Woodbury Township, Blair, could reflect either just the formation of a new county, or an actual move of quite a few miles.

+16 votes

Hi Vic, I agree with you on this topic.  Granted, we should look up the proper location name at the time of use, but I would think that most people here don't do that.

I name pre-1789, when most of the states ratified the U.S. Constitution, exactly as you have stated.  If a more explicit location name is offered (Plymouth Colony), I leave that location, otherwise, I name it with the current state name or the current grave location name.  

Take Maine, for instance, the Popham Colony was established there c1607, but Maine was part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts until 1820 and the final border with British territory was not established until 1842. Personnally, I think it is less confusing to say an ancestor was from Maine than to say he was from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  The two or more names for the same location are confusing to me. . . I do as you do. 

answered by Kitty Smith G2G6 Pilot (453k points)

Thank you for raising this. Though not in terms of the same country, my brother and I had a similar conversation. We are now in the process of doing the following for all place names (in this case South Africa first indicating the place name as it was known at the time of the event, followed by the currently correct place name), e.g.:

Stellenbosch, Cape Colony (now known as Stellenbosch, Western Cape, South Africa).

I am of the opinion that while we are working on these profiles, we have the opportunity to add value in terms of the context (polictical and social) of a specific event, and often this helps in understanding naming conventions and spelling variations relating to individuals and families.

Might seem like a cumbersome process, but it is a mere suggestion considering the lack of an authority file (with see referencing) for geographical place names. I am really interested to hear other opinions on this as well.



I totally agree with Wynand (I think)! We should be adding "value in terms of the context (polictical and social) of a specific event", not removing what might be the currently correct name of a location where additional source information may be found  Especially when, "often this helps in understanding naming conventions and spelling variations relating to individuals and families" and considering the complete "lack of an authority file for geographical place names."

We need to have all of the ancient names. Vic is correct there! However, the only way to see the geographic relationships across time (families that stayed near each other) is to have them all reference the same (currently correct) place name.  I would use GPS coordinates if they were available because they change less frequently.  

I go with the cutoff as 4 Jul 1776 for switching to USA, as a US citizen I feel that we asserted our independent nationhood that day.

Prior to that, I use Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Province of Carolina, etc., etc (in other words I try to use their legal name at the time of the event). I do not reference Britain in any way. This is not because I have any lack of fondness for my voluminous British ancestors (although it seems some of them were actually real jerks), but rather because it just seems sort of silly and reads funny in place names to my eye.
Daphne - What would you do with people who lived in Maine in the 1600s? Would you use Massachusetts Bay Colony? In some cases, using "their names" is misleading to contemporary readers. I think the style policy should be to use both - eg "x Town, ABC Colony, now Z City, ABC State"

I would use the legal jurisdiction under which they lived. If it is worth mentioning that such and such a county was subsumed as Maine during the person's lifetime, then I would do that (and thus they'd have been born in Massachusetts Bay Colony, lived through a time as residents of the State of Massachusetts, and died in the State of Maine). It would have had an impact on their lives that the ground was shifting under them, and it's worth pointing out in their biography.

Being accurate in the fields, while explaining the circumstances in the biography, also informs your readers and reviewers as to why primary sources which you're citing show the person living in all three places, even if they never "left the nest".

As I tried to point out in a different comment, this can happen at the state/state or state/colony or county/county level in U.S. history. I think if we at least aim to use the correct jurisdictions, then we're putting the truth in the profiles. If a reader is really interested in the person, they would surely be able to stand reading a sentence of two of their biograhy that talks about how the politcal world was shifting in their lifetime.

If the person lived and died in the Virginia Colony or whatever, then it doesn't seem as relevant to explain that before there were states, there were colonies. That explanation would get old in Wikitree very quickly! :)

I have to think that the real effort is put into this subject by the profile author, not the reader. The reader benefits from us doing a sufficiently thorough job of explaining the person's actual life, amd as authors we take the hit by figuring out what really constituted that life.

Conflating the current-in-lifetime with the new right in the data field just seems like an uneccessary mess. What problem is solved by adding today's jurisdiction information into the data fields? How was it relevant to that person that where they lived would someday have a new name/jurisdiction? Are the people who end up reading these biographies so ill-informed and intellectually lazy that seeing a colony name is going to disorient them to the point where they don't understand the profile and just give up saying "I wish I knew wher ethis person lived, but this 'Colony' thing doesn't compute"? No.

I think the issue here is whether profile authors as genealogists are willing to take the time to learn the formation stories, or at least the basic facts, of the jurisdictions our subjects lived in.

If we're doing real research on the person, this will tend to "just happen" because we'll see it in primary or secondary sources on the subject. If we're trying to do data entry from trees or whatever, then it might feel like extra work, but honestly, I don't think the quality of the tree should be allowed to dip down to the lowest common denominator of tree-copying from other sites -- at least not as a matter of policy.

There is always room for improvement. I know I have yet to write my "masterpiece" profile.... I don't fault anyoine for overlooking a jurisdiction situation or from skipping the question and moving on -- not at all. I just think that as a matter of policy, the ideal toward which we strive should be accuracy first.

One thing that would really help wikitree, I think, is to have coordinates or map fields to back up location fields. In a different comment, I showed how I used a google map to point to where a person lived, partly because the counties and towns in his neck of the woods were in flux in his lifetime. I don't think we should all have to do this on a regular basis, but it's quite easy to get a google map if you really know where someone lived. I think that kind of thing ends up being much more helpful to people who aren't from the area to understand its place in the world, regardless of its jurisdictional shifts over time....

EDIT: by the way, as lots and lots of geolocation services come online in the internet/cloud, I think having coordinates as data in wikitree will become more and more interesting. Among the things which are entirely doable at some point would be to just use the coordinates and any given date to infer jurisdictions... or to find geographical clusters of people with surnames, etc., etc.... so I guess I'll raise the subject of coordinates separately.

Make sure you put a date on anything you call "Now". There is nothing quite so certain as the fact that what is "now" does not remain so. I think of our distant descendants arguing over what to do with all the ancient "now" references... lol
+8 votes
answered by Jillaine Smith G2G6 Pilot (641k points)
I delete USA, but my question is about the finer points of leaving Massachusetts or changing to the propoer jurisdiction of Massachusetts Bay Colony or Plymouth Colony, or just leaving Massachusetts.
My inclination is to delete USA before 1776, and for Plymouth Colony my inclination is to use "Plymouth Colony" through the 1630s or so, but to use "Massachusetts" afterward, as the special character of Plymouth Colony faded after the influx of second-hand immigrants from Massachusetts Bay.

This comment is removed because I realised I was complaining about people enjoying themselves.



+14 votes

I also found it tedious to look up the dates and names on profiles before 1789, so I made this list - it is open for anyone to use or add data. It is not comprehensive, I just add towns as I come across them in profiles of my ancestors.

I have been surprised at how many ancestors were involved in founding the towns, and when known I include their names as founders in my list.

New England Locations and Dates

There is also a link to an existing database for  the colonial towns of Connecticut; the ones I use most often are in my list.

I hope this will be useful to others.

answered by April Dauenhauer G2G6 Pilot (107k points)
Just found this ~ can they be combined ?
If it would be helpful I'm agreeable to that. I think my list of places and Kitty's list do not overlap.
Please make any changes that you wish.
+6 votes
I would have to agree that we probably should keep it as more specific we know and making a note of it in the profile. Truth is in the 1700's it gets complicated because parts  of Massachussets are what eventually became Maine, Virginia became West Virginia etc.
answered by Matt Pryber G2G6 Mach 4 (48.1k points)
+11 votes

I also remove USA, however I rarely use MassBay or Plymouth Colony. 

What I do use is the town or county where the records are found, particularly for Massachusetts with what we call the Tan Books.  And include notations in the narrative when known.  

If there are records available for b, m, d and they are located in Ipswich records or Salisbury records etc.  then that's the town I use, as it is where someone else can confirm that record. 

Sometimes records say Chebacco, now Ipswich or now Essex.   If that is the case, I include that in the bio.

Others might say  xxxx, MA (now xxx, NH) -  and that again can make a difference in finding related records and sources such as b, m, d or bio's on town service, military service, becoming a freeman, probate documents etc. .

Putting Massachusetts Bay Colony instead isn't really helpful when distinct locations are available and lead to further source material.

answered by Chris Hoyt G2G6 Pilot (609k points)

My 2 cents are on the other side on this.

I think that adding extra (modern) information to a place name in a specific field should be avoided at all costs. I think within a biography it's great, though, if you feel it adds to the narrative!

> Putting Massachusetts Bay Colony instead isn't really helpful when distinct locations are available and lead to further source material.

Research is hard, sometimes! I think that if you know the town you're looking for, it's not rocket science to figure out which county or state, etc. should be holding the records (if there are any). It's hard to believe that someone who will wind up doing a good job with an old profile is going to stumble over a placename like Dartmouth, Bristol, Massachussets Bay Colony and have no idea where to find further information or figure out where the heck it is! Right? If you don't know the town or county you're talking about, then the point is moot b/c you can't accurately translate to modern place name, and if you do and you include that detail, I don't think anyone's going to be left in the dust over using the correct name for the time and place.

I think that, as is being mentioned here, it's much harder to figure out what the correct placename is for the time in question, than it is to go in the other direction (figure out the modern placename).

+7 votes
When using the place name at the time the person existed - it is usually unrecognized when you click to "see" it  on google maps unless the place name hasn't changed over the centuries. While it will show the location on the map if UK, USA, etc... isn't in the field - I have noticed it will not if the ancient name is used.  (ex. Siluria)

It may be better to list the original in the bio and have the modern name in the field to keep the mapping feature relevent.
answered by Michelle Brooks G2G6 Mach 2 (21.4k points)
edited by Michelle Brooks
I am from Pennsylvania, and have found many ancestors listed in certain counties, which were not formed at that specific time, in particular, a township listed for birth has been part of 4 different counties as new ones were formed prior to the revolutionary war. The original counties were set by William Penn and many Quakers, but since have been divided, especially the ones settled primarily by Irish or German-Dutch etc., who did not bode well living in a county formed by Menonites, Germans, Catholic dominated or Evangelical dominated. This makes it very difficult to sort out exactly where an ancestor originated. I have my James Shields, born 1733 often listed from Adams County, which wasn't formed until 1810. Some areas like the ones prior mentioned overlapped different states, so you have to check for records there too. Another factor is the changing of the spellings or names of townships, example the township Strabann has been Strabane, North Straban, and Strebain over the years, so are these all the same township or nearby townships that separated as years passed and broken down into others? Finding the correct sources in such cases take a lot of leg work, online research, or one thing I have done is purchase a map that lists the formation of various PA counties, but so many now overlap your eyes go buggy trying to decipher the dotted lines, the slash lines and the solid lines in the same area to figure out how far which extended and what all surrounding areas are parts of different counties during the time period you are analyzing! This helps somewhat, but not if an area has at one time been part of what is now West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio etc. You can't go to all the courthouses etc, especially the ones who the county seat has moved and in a few cases it has burned and records are lost. This particular subject has been a bain to many genealogists over the years unless they happen to find records that have been placed online from microfish, but some are only partially listed! Just my 10 cents worth, as 2 cents has quadrupled in value ;-)
+17 votes
USA before the Declaration of Independence - no way

But I've never seen a contemporary document that listed the term "British America." I think it's a modern term.

Wills frequently say I "so and so" of "town name", in the county of ________, "name of colony, "New Enland".

Charles the Second in the Connecticut Charter, calls the Colony "in that parte of the Continent of America called New England"

New England is an acceptable contemporary term for the states which are now known collectively as New England and should not be removed from profiles that have listed it.
answered by Anne B G2G6 Pilot (968k points)
+6 votes

Did you see this from Kitty Smith?

answered by Michael Stills G2G6 Pilot (360k points)
Thanks, Michael.  This free space page is available for additions and improvements, but it never really went anywhere.  Only two others have made changes.  It is a lot of work to research, but I have some new info to add about Maine and Saint Augustine, so I will try to make those changes.
+6 votes
With respect to country, Maryland was a separate colony from the time it was formed in 1634 until 1776, so there is no over-country like USA or British America.  Lord Baltimore, Proprietor of Maryland, reported directly to the King, if he reported at all!

Within Maryland, there were several original counties and as the western parts were settled, more colonies were created.  

I believe the proper designation where a county was created is to say, "George Smith was born in 1750 in Damascus, Frederick (now Montgomery) County.  Or, if filling in the place of birth, "Damascus, Frederick (now Montgomery) Co, Maryland.  If George had been born in the same location in 1740, it would have been Prince Georges (now Montgomery) Co, Maryland.  Frederick was created out of Prince Georges in 1744, and Montgomery out of Frederick in 1776.  (Of course one problem with my illustration is that I don't think Damascus existed that far back either!)

In the case of Maryland, the records for a specific location are in the county the location was then in, when the records have not been transferred to the state Archives.
answered by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (227k points)
I agree with Jack on how he shows the change of names when a ancestor stayed in a cerrtain place, but where he lived changed names when counties were split off. Rappahannock co Va existed in the 1600's, but instead of simply splitting off land for a new county, the name was abolished, and two new counties were named. To further confuse things, a new Rappahannock was created further west at a later date. For the original county, I simply add (now such and such county) if the date is after the abolishment.

Thanks for pointing that out Ken! Just lucky... Virginia counties have pre-USA & post-1788 categories (under Category:Virginia & Category:Virginia Colony), so we already had categories for both. I added info to their pages to clarify. (See for example Category:Rappahannock County, Virginia.)

Cheers, Liz

+12 votes

International Knowledge of Location:  I actually put in parenthesis USA in areas pre "USA" because we are an international genealogical site, and I believe that the majority internet users/researchers are aware of the abbreviation USA and it's location.  However, with that said, not all researchers or otherwise will have any idea where the Virginia Colony was, much less where VA is or even Virginia, without doing a search.  I do TRY and put the correct name of the location for the era, but as time is frequently a constraint, I am perfectly happy to have someone "fix" it later while including something to reference for the CURRENT location and until WikiTree standardizes location names, and I will continue to do so. I firmly believe that (USA) or in this case, (This Town, Massachusetts, USA) is necessary. Categories can help with this discrepency, but in name searches, where one is trying to narrow down a thousand John Smiths, if we have at least the minimum of the current location/country based upon research and familial relationships, this helps.  

[On another note, for instance, the ongoing changing of names on medieval profiles to the original language, type, spelling...totally unsearchable by me with the arrogant attitude that "it's not in English" but with a person's name ONLY in the original alphabet and original spelling searchable?  That's another can of worms...]

Impact on research:  It is often useful to have the "current" location (even if it is just USA) because as boundaries/names changed, the records usually ended up in the current location's repository of records (ie: A church or cemetery founded in Massachusetts Bay Colony ...the records are in the USA, state of Massachusetts and whatever it is now.  [Of course, in the case of churches records may have gone to the current national record repository.]) Isn't this the what researchers need?  To find where the records are now? Isn't this one of the purposes of WikiTree?  To collaborate and communicate?  If we can't do this in a universal language of what is known now vs. what is known to be true by a few?  Why not leave both?  USA vs British Colony vs America vs East Indies vs whatever the Vikings called it in the 10th century AD?  WHICH is the most beneficial to a researcher?  There is the answer.

Example:  Ancestor was born 1766.  Hampshire County, Virginia per his gravestone.  Guess what?!  Hampshire county absolutely did not exist in 1766.  And if we look at the progression of the Virginia Colony, in the area where this ancestor stated he was born, was at one time part of the Virginia Colony/State AND part of what is now Pennsylvania...and to top that off, was broken off from several other "counties OR parishes".  Where do I find records for this person...of course, mostly in the current day Hampshire county, but I have found them also in Augusta, Beverly Manor (which was a land grant/sale for profit by the owners/representatives) AND Pennslyvania.  So how does one classify this?  It is a quandry.  But a reference to the current day, Hampshire County, Virginia, USA and the Virginia colony, etc via categories might get others somewhere. 


Leave the reference to (USA)

Correct the location of the name at the time for the location

And, at the minimum if you insist on removing the current location, add the current location via categories. 

Don't want to do this?  Then my recommendation is not to remove or correct the location as to what it was as to where a researcher can find the information today.  Of course, this is my two cents, or two pence.  Of course I could have thrown in a shilling or today in the "USA" a quarter.


Great resource for those that are visually oriented:

This map is animated and shows the progressive development of counties/parishes within a colony to the current status of a state in the USA.  I haven't tried this out in some of the western states, and cannot allude to the accuracy but it appears to be well documented).

NOTE:  Be careful to go down to the lower half of the page where a map of the USA current boundries and click on the state of choice.  This map is animated and shows the progressive development of counties/parishes. 

answered by Nae X G2G6 Mach 5 (53.8k points)
I certainly understand and appreciate your comment, but the key to it was "those of us who are serious".

How do you define that?  Or should I say, of the x number of researchers on WikiTree, how many are serious to the point of say, certification as a genealogist?  Not I.  If you review my initial forays into the "online" world of research you will see many mistakes and many instances of "no knowledge".  Although, I perceived myself as serious, but I think a more accurate term "excited" by what was opened up via the internet...I started research on my family and other lines over 30 years ago...traveling to the locations and then finally came back to it "after life" and I had the time.  TOTAL Novice.  Didn't know a thing about documenting, researching, etc.  Had my original notes on 3x5 cards, and typewritten charts with notes scribbled in pencil, and copies of information/records with no source attached and then all this INFO on the web!  Wow!

I will return to my example of an ancestor born 1766.  He died in 1832 in the then known as county, Wood in the then known state of Virginia.  If I were to attempt to locate records on him...they don't exist, because that place no longer exists except in the "geographical location".  But, if I know that he actually died in present day Wirt County, West Virginia I can find his will, deeds, etc....

I am not an expert, nor am I a certified genealogist.  I do believe, however, that the original name of a location has it's place, but that the current location name also has it's place, and maybe more importantly as a resource for research which, in my serious research opinion, is what genealogy is all about.  Not everyone has a couple of years of research, let alone thirty, under their belt.  They can't sleep one night, they have a new baby, a relative dies and they want to know more.  The average researcher is thus, and wouldn't know to trace down the counties from the colony to the present day holder of the records.

So, do we put the current place in the bio?  Or is there a place for it to be in parenthesis in the location fields?  Which is best?  A place that doesn't exist anymore, or the alternate of what does exist OR both...hence (USA).
And one more itty bitty comment.  If when citing a source or record we, as the "author" add our own comment via [ and ] what is the difference between adding (USA).  As the "author" or "editor" with the comment given to a location, it is a fact.  Current, but still allowing for the original location name.



Census record:

J R Schmow 35 Smithville, Anyplace [Joseph Rudy, DOB Jan 10 1895, source:  xxxx] or by using the reference coding.
Arguments for finding records is irrelevant for the for the purpose of establishing which location to use.

Ultimately you need to know the history of the place from the time of the event thru present to track records.  I have records that went to another county when during the middle of the person's life the county changed boundaries and change again after his death.  Also, you need to establish provenance of the records.  Churches may have kept some records and moved to a different county while the state may have moved them to yet another county.   

It is similar to surnames.  What surname do you use?  You need to know all the variations to track down your ancestor. So too, you need to know all the variations of a place name and how it changed to track down your ancestor.

So I believe, the question is, what is the policy that Wikitree chooses to endorse when listing place names?
I haven't read (or reread, this discussion goes back a long way) but to explain the current plan:

The correct technical solution, I think, is to allow the selection/entering of geographic coordinates. These coordinates can eventually be used to render the location name in the viewing user's preferred language or format.

The coordinates will be in addition to the current place name fields, for which our style rule is to use the person's "preferred language or format," so to speak.

When we designed our database seven years ago we left room for these geographic coordinates. It's always been on the to-do list. It's just never made it to the top of the list.
Cool Chris, I had been mulling over that idea as well.  This discussion seems to have two parts (or more perhaps).  

One is X marks the spot.  Where did the event occur?  Your technical solution can address that.  

The other is what was the name of place X?  That seems to be the debate.  What is the purpose of the name?

For research purposes, one needs to understand the provenance or history of the place and path the record in question took.  This leads us on many adventures and each record, which may identify the same point of origin, will have a different history and thus a different path.

Both have a point of origin. X Marks the spot.

+1 to adding (modern) geographic co-ordinates, Actually make that +100.

Who knows maybe someday we could use that data to tie into something like an international version of

Then there is this map website that stole more than a few hours of my day:

What better way to difuse a possible conversation Ton!  I couldn't even delve into it, but I will, maybe next year.  LOL

Chris, what a great idea about the locations!  This would solve a great deal of issues and still leave it available for researchers to locate where records are AND make a location universal but still leave the "naming" flexible.  Move it to the top of the list as an option!  :) 

Vic, my only major concern, and not a critisism of your procedure, is regarding research.  You know me by now.  That's what I am all about...make it easier for other researchers to verify information, to locate it, to document our family.  I know, my peeves are for ancestors that here on WikiTree, members are adding at the minimum a country.  We are all not "experts" or certified genealogists and so, I will take USA over nothing any day of the week.  I will also, without an "expert or certfied or serious" qualification take any current reference to a location over a historical location. Correct the historical location but Please Please don't, until at least Chris' geo tech stuff goes up, remove a notation to (USA) or America in location fields, and especially in the Biography field.  It gives those of us who don't know the difference between CT and Connecticut, a medical procedure, Cape Town, Channel Tube, Canterberry, etc.... a place to locate information about our ancestors, and probably much quicker than figuring out where the River Colony was in 1636.


As always, opinionated. Nae X  heart






Again, just my two pence. 


What I always use for a surname or CLNAB [correct last name at birth], is the VERY first record that I find for the least I try to via extensive "online" research.  So if, I KNOW the last name was Smyth but the first record I found for John was Smith, ie: birth, first census, death, etc...but the very FIRST record I  can document was SMITH, that is the LNAB.  As John's life goes on, I will add "Smythe" as a current name if documented in later records...  In other words (especially in the USA), names evolved from the Census record keeper, to the Ellis Island recorder, to the now illiterate parent or recorder at the church or county... That's how I do it.  Maybe not correct, least John Smith and Smythe and Smyth will show up in searches via WikiTree....
The beauty of the narrative is taht one can add anything that one can explain.  

Another way to approach the place issue is to put both either in the narrative or the data field -- "John Smith was born in 1720 in Prince Georges (now Montgomery) County, Maryland.   I'm really not sure I would write the last, though, "Maryland (now in USA) or (in USA since 1776)  That would be true but you expect people to be on this site because they are learners, and at some point one has to do some learning.  If I'm going to study my European ancestors, I'm going to have to learn some European history and place names, not expect everything to be handed to me!
Nice site!
+8 votes

There are pros and cons of using the name of a place during their time.  When you are citing sources of where you gleaned your information from is that source correct?

What is now New Jersey, USA.  Authors whom have committed years to clarifying a place all appear to use different methodologies.  A prime example may be found if limiting this theory to one of my distant relatives' surnames... Schooley a.k.a. Scholey. If you look at places used by Ambrose Shotwell in "Annals of our Colonial Ancestors... " compare that to Woodward and Hageman in;view=1up;seq=27 "History of Burlington and Mercer..."  and compare that to W. C. Armstrong in "The Lundy Family..." and compare that to Ancestry Online Database ex: compare that to M. Schooley Ivey in "Pioneer Schooley Family..." then compare that to RootsWeb's WorldConnect at "ANCESTORS AND COLLATERAL CONNECTIONS" and compare that with J. W. Moore in "The Jerseyman" and on and on.  

answered by David Wilson G2G6 Mach 8 (82.2k points)
+4 votes
No USA before 1776.  I use .... colony (now......) for the colonies, as nobody that I can remember ever called the colonies "British North America."  I believe in keeping history alive, so I use the contemporary jurisdiction, unless it would cause confusion or leave no path to the location of current records for current researchers.

    Example:  One of my ancestors was among the first settlers of Guilford, Connecticut, in 1639, and had children born there shortly thereafter.  But this was not Connecticut then.  The funny part is that it was not even part of New Haven colony at that time, only connecting with New Haven in 1642.  I just left it with "New Haven colony", because "Guilford colony" [?] is really a bit too obscure a distinction.  One can slice history a bit too thinly for mass consumption, but it is rather an interesting trivia question.

The same problem occurs in Rhode Island (and Providence Plantations), where one of my Gorton ancestors kept being either expelled from or leaving Massachusetts Bay and/or Plymouth colonies, and they kept following him and claiming his land in order to harrass him!
answered by Dan Sparkman G2G6 Mach 1 (16.4k points)
+13 votes
Political and administrative designations change and will keep on changing for the forseeable future. To use any but the designation in use at the time of the event will create problems down the road because the task of correcting every location entry after a change is just not going to be done. A good example for this is Germany: A lot of online genealogical information for Northern Germany is based on late 19th and early 20th century sources and people get stymied in their efforts locating records in some Prussian province, simply because that province used to be an independent state, most often with a completely different name.

The fact that the majority of current users of WikiTree is from the USA should not be reason for some exceptionalism for territories now covered by the USA. Just think of it from the perspective of a Chinese genealogist 200 years from now who tries to figure out what this "USA" in 1680 was.
answered by Helmut Jungschaffer G2G6 Pilot (438k points)
+5 votes
The current policy is one of those things that's easy to say, but nearly impossible to actually do if one tries to apply it to all situations. I fear it's naïve.
I'm certain most people think it means "trimming 'USA' off the end pre-1776 makes me feel clever". Heck, I do that and I feel smart when I do it. That's a far cry from doing the research to figure out what the place was really called at the time. Just a quick glance at the lists of names and dates and maps for all the New England colonies makes it obvious how unreasonable it would be to actually do what this policy actually says, and how confusing the result would be, and how unhelpful the average WikiTreer would find the resulting information to be.
What does "at the time" even mean, when borders and jurisdictions were shifting throughout a given person's lifetime?  I have an ancestor who, on his US Federal Census records throughout the 1800s, variously reported his birthplace as "Württemburg", "Preußen", and "Germany". This isn't because he got confused about where he was born. Those terms aren't synonymous or interchangeable. It isn't because his birthplace moved around. Each of them was correct at the time it was used. I'm literally imagining him and the census-taker needing to have a conversation about it every ten years, maybe picking up the newspaper to see who conquered Schale most recently...
We, especially-but-not-limited-to WikiTree leaders, should have a serious discussion about three questions:
1. What is the genealogical purpose of location information? What policy would best suit this purpose?
Both the at-the-time location and the current-day location are needed to help modern researchers locate records. When a location changed names several times, all of the variants are needed. Best for this is the free-text biography, to record all the pertinent information about places and how to find them.
2. What is the WikiTree purpose of placing location in a discrete data field?
G2Gers have noted that WikiTree provides a mapping utility keyed off of the location field, and they've pointed out that the link is useless when the place name in the field is archaic. Location appears in Watchlists. What else is it used for? It isn't validated or indexed or used for bulk operations, so I'm guessing there's no communal technical dependency happening.
This is important, and it is a completely separate question from #1. Which location information should be made available to WikiTree visitors, casual genealogists, serious genealogists? All of it, as much as possible. But which one of those potentially many variations should "win" a place in the location box? Seems like we could use the tech and enable some good new capabilities and knowledge by using one that maps to a physical location in some way, which means probably not archaic names that mapping tools can't find.
3. Are we serious about being an international site with a world tree, or are we content to be Europe (mostly Britain) and North America (mostly USA and Canada) centric?
A G2Ger made the excellent observation that removing "USA" from fields assumes that everyone on WikiTree knows even which continent "Maine" or "Plymouth" is on. How many of us can find Bihar on a map? Transvaal? Do we know what they were called 50 years ago? 500? Are we going to add support for someone to put "甘肃" in the location field? Are there even fonts for the extinct scripts some of our ancient nobles wrote? What about place names in non-written languages? Are we going to document that the Mayflower shallop went ashore at Meeshawn? It sure as heck wasn't "Provincetown Harbor" at the time they reconnoitered there. (That name was hard to find, by the way!)
I don't think the policy as stated is realistic for the scope of tree we say we're trying to create.
A more flexible policy - something like "do the best you can to achieve x goal in the location field, and describe variations in the biography if those distinctions are useful" - seems like it would better adapt to history, geography, language, experience level, etc. at scale.
Flexibility is also more consistent with our actual practice for LNABs. Given that the spelling of older LNABs varied considerably during a person's lifetime and there often was no single right spelling, we do the best we can to pick one for the LNAB field, in whatever way enhances findability and understanding, and we put the variations in OLN and/or the biography.
answered by Cheryl Hammond G2G6 Mach 1 (18.8k points)
+8 votes
Just happened to see this even though it's an old discussion.

I focus on Maryland, which was a Province from its founding in 1634.  But I"m perplexed by the need to invent a title called "British America".  To my knowledge, history records no overall entity called British America.  The leadership of Maryland reported to Lord Baltimore, who reported to the King.  There was no relationship with Virginia or Pennsylvania as part of any overall entity.  Maryland was Maryland.
answered by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (227k points)
Long (and old) thread.  I'll confess that I haven't read all of it, but I certainly agree with this one.  "British America" is an arbitrary, made up place name.  Speaking just for myself, If I have ancestors who lived in colonial Maryland, or Virginia, or any of the other colonies, I'll just stop at Virginia, or whatever it may be, in the place name.  Also, should we include Spanish America?  French America?  Dutch America?
No need to think about using "Dutch America" if you are referring to a place in New Netherland. We can use "New Netherland."
Very good point Fred. I have come to this discussion very late. One of my problems with naming the place what it is now is that for Virginia, court records prior to 1863 are still kept in Virginia. So if you say someone was born in West Virginia in 1843 that is not right, even if the County they were born in later became West Virginia.
+4 votes
There is a conflict between "what" and "where" that needs to be addressed.  A number of other genealogy programs want the modern place name so it can be found on today's maps.  And WikiTree has a button you can push to get a modern location.  If so and so died in Istanbul, Turkey, you can click and find.  But if they died 800 years ago in Constantinople or Byzantium (the same place, for those who track these things), that function won't work.  So it would be helpful to have a separate line at least in the edit field for "contemporary location" or "place name today".   Or if you have them, coordinates could be entered.  Then the mapping programs would have something to work with, and historians like me would not feel pressure to abandon the place names that were actually used at the time.
answered by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (227k points)
+4 votes
By Golly! This has been one of the most discussed issues on WikiTree.  

So, I want to offer a potentially different perspective on what we are discussing.  I have no answers here.

We have seen a lot of discussion on what to call a given place.  But we have not clarified what our purpose is for naming a given place.  I see a lot of unspoken assumptions and then answers based on another set of unspoken assumptions, but we have not discussed the assumptions themselves as to our purpose in any great of detail.

1. Is for Genealogical Purposes?  If so, many professional genealogists will tell you name a location with enough details to identify it as a unique location.  The idea being so that we do not confuse it with another similarly named location.  Others, like WikiTree, say to use the name as it was used at the time of the event.  But by who’s standard?  And this poses some problems to creating a standard.

2. Others come at it from a technology-based approach.  How do we set up a documenting system that can be universally agreed upon so that we can build a program that helps us maintain that integrity?

3. Still others come at it from a legal based approach and a socio/political/philosophical approach.  When is a country (state, city, province, etc.) a country, from whose perspective?   

We are given the advice to use the name as it was used at the time of the event in the language of the person of interest.

I was given the name Michael.  In my life, I have been known at various times as Michael, Mike, Michael Lee, Daddy, Father, Capt. Stills, Ranger Mike and (a name my wife uses at particular times in special circumstances), among a few other choice names.  All are correct; many reflect an amorphous time frame and better describe me various times in my life.   And I have different names from the prospective of those who are using them.

Do we enter all names into a database and assign a specific time frame? Do we only use formally recognized names? If so, which dates for what names and to what purpose? If we have not agreed on the purpose, we cannot reach a consensus.

And so the discussion is never resolved.

In my research, it will be most helpful if the names provided gave me insight and access to all other such names and timeframes.  For each name tells me something different about the subject and the time when it was used and by whom.  Thus being all potentially valuable information.

If a purpose can be established and agreed upon, then a convention can be used.  Being a convention, we will have all agreed that while not perfect, it is the best representation we can think of that supports our agreed upon purpose.

Not that the discussion will ever end.  But then maybe it shouldn’t.
answered by Michael Stills G2G6 Pilot (360k points)
+2 votes
now we have a fine table to look up the right name for the right time period - recently finished with lots of work

answered by Navarro Mariott G2G6 Mach 5 (59.5k points)
+1 vote
The work has already been onthis subject which you can access at This space addresses naming conventions for both the United States and Canada. It links to the companion spreadsheets that trace historic names since European colonization. Check it out.
answered by Barry Sweetman G2G6 Mach 2 (22.2k points)

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