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 (314k 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

+2 votes
Wikipedia has a more or less official list here:

answered by Patricia Hickin G2G6 Mach 6 (66.6k points)

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