Why are counties considered a High Level Category in Canada or Ireland, but not in the US? [closed]

+4 votes
Shouldn't there be some consistency in categorization  among countries?  It is clear that for location categories a profile should be categorized at the lowest level possible, but sometimes that is at the county level.  Categorization can help researches find potentially related family members, even at the county level.
closed with the note: I need to reword the question.
in Policy and Style by Meg McGowan G2G5 (5.7k points)
closed by Meg McGowan
A "county" in the US is approximate to a (non-clerical) "parish" or "shire" in other places; while a "county" or "shire" in different parts of the UK is almost like a state in the US.
Thank you Melanie.  I am not familiar with the examples you mentioned, but in the three countries I work with frequently, mentioned above, County in each case is a third tiered division:  Country--Province or State--County.  Are we going to insist on categorization at a fourth tier in all countries?
In Australia it's usually designated as "Federal", "State" and "Local", where local is either "Parish" or "Shire" depending on the state.  (Well, unless it's changed in the last 20 or so years.)  If I recall correctly, when my mother was Personal Assistant to a Barrister and Solicitor in the State of Victoria, it was "Parish".  When I lived in Queensland, it was "Shire".

So far as I know, a place such as "Essex", "Wessex", Suffolk" etc would be equivalent to a US state.  In Scotland in a bygone era (1800s or so) it seemed to be "Shire" as the separating designation, so "Wigtownshire" would be almost like a State in the US.

I don't see any of those as 4th tier.  They're all 3rd tier.  (Country: England; Province or State: Norfolk; County: whatever the term is (Registration district, I think).  Country: Scotland; Province or State: Banffshire; County: Aberlour (I think that's the RD).)
Unlike the US, counties are of prime importance in Ireland & the UK, better known than provinces (or states) when defining localities; it is really a matter of tailoring category hierarchies to meet varying circumstances. In Ireland the word "County" precedes the name of the county in common usage; in England the word "County" is not used, individual counties are known by their names only.

ps: re Melanies comment above, interesting - England goes - England - then counties; Norfolk; Suffolk etc. whereas in Ireland it goes - Ireland / (province) Ulster / then County Armagh; County Antrim etc. & here's me saying Provinces aren't so important in Ireland! It is just that England has regions c/f East Anglia or the Midlands which don't count as "provinces" whereas in Ireland the provinces are still administrative divisions and reflect the old kingdoms. In both countries, it is the counties that matter.

@ Valerie .. I couldn't remember what the Irish setup was/is.  Not enough "need" (so far) to research there.  Pretty much my one foray was to get the registration numbers for my Grandma and her one sister.  (My "Irish roots" so to speak. cheeky )


In Queensland we do say "Redlands Shire", "Noosa Shire", "Maroochy Shire" and the like.  Not sure I ever heard the "something Parish" when living in Victoria, though.  It seemed to be more a legal thing than an everyday thing.  With the US I've become accustomed to the "County" thing. 

Just to confuse (English) things, there can also be more than one village or hamlet within a parish and more than one parish within a town. Registration district can be an area that includes part of more than one county, so you have for example the village of Coleorton in Leicestershire which was at one time within the registration district of Shardlow, Derbyshire. It is now part of Ashby de la Zouch district, Leicestershire, so you can have someone who lived in the same village or hamlet or even house their whole lives who were registered in one county for birth but death was registered in another.
I have noticed that on the freeBMD searches, but at least they give an explanation AND a timeline for the changes so someone such as I can correctly name the "where" someone was born, married, or died (at least from 1837 and on).
For Canada, in those provinces that have counties, there are lower-level jurisdictions between the counties and cities, towns, or villages. In New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, there are parishes. In Ontario, there are townships. So even people who were born, married, or died on a farm way outside the nearest village, there is still a parish or township for them to be categorised into.
The United States has been, and remains, less uniform than one might assume from local experience.  I grew up in New England, where relatively uniform population density in colonial times resulted in virtually all areas within southern coastal counties being allocated to a specific town for utility services such as road maintenance.  These New England towns had irregular boundaries, while territory settled after national independence, including many western states were surveyed into six-mile-square townships.  These townships were of similar size to the populated towns, but initially had insufficient population to administer utility services, so county government fulfilled that function until local residents formed a town to better control use of their tax revenues.  Many towns with low population have subsequently abandoned that financial independence and reverted to county control to avoid administrative overhead.  While present practice encourages childbirth (and lingering death from the afflictions of age) in hospital facilities available only in towns with substantial population, that has not always been the case; and a "high level category" may be the only political subdivision in the era of earlier ancestors or those still living in areas of low population density.

Scotland is more sparsely populated than England, so you lose a level in the hierarchy.  If Scotland had English-sized counties, in population terms, it would only have about 4 (in fact the population of Scotland is similar to Yorkshire).

Instead of which, a traditional Scottish county was generally similar in size to an English hundred, and there weren't any hundreds in Scotland.

Likewise, a Scottish earldom is equivalent to an English barony, and a Scottish feudal barony was just a large manor.

This puts an average Scottish county on a par with an American county.  The spread of numbers in this list is typical of many U.S. states


(At the same date, the English average was a million)

Thank you for the range of discussion on the question. Clearly there are variations across countries. The discussion has helped me think about formulating future related questions.  I was seeking thoughts about categorization at a level that is not the lowest level established, particularly in periods where the available sources are scarce. I could have worded it better. Mahalo.

5 Answers

+4 votes
Best answer
The fact that each jurisdiction uses the word "county" should not lead us to imagine they are the same thing.  Not only are countries different, but each US state is different.  Louisiana calls their equivalent civil jurisdiction a "parish" rather than a "county".  That doesn't it equivalent to a parish in some other place, or in a church.

Some US states have "townships" as a level below "county".  Maryland does not.  In Maryland the county for some people is the lowest level place a person can be in.  "Where do you live?"  "oh, out in the county."  The county may be divided into different postal addresses, zip codes, and legislative districts, none of which are equivalent to each other.  In addition, Maryland has Baltimore City, which is not part of a county, but equivalent to one.  And New York City contains 5 boroughs, each of which is equivalent to a county.

So I really think that trying to categorize everything according to a rigid scheme is a fool's errand!
by Jack Day G2G6 Pilot (349k points)
selected by Steve Harris
All comments above re the US reinforce my belief that categorizers should avoid "Familysearch" dropdowns in favor of local reality.  A movement is afoot to eliminate townships for reasons of efficiency.  Historically the township held the township records.Extremely valuable are surviving township burial records for early cemeteries.  I hope someone is planning to preserve what twp records survive.
The drop downs for places to go in the data field are from Family Search, but the drop downs for categories are WikiTree's very own creation, thanks to our superb team of people who know how to create this kind of thing.  Create a category this minute, and in very few minutes it will be part of what the drop down tells you is already available.
+5 votes

A lot depends on the specific location. At least in some of the Canadian Provinces, if you can't get it to lower than county level you probably haven't tried very hard. Typically when you can't get lower than county you don't have county, either. In New Brunswick, you can usually get to parish just as easily as a county and then you might have some people in the same general vicinity. What I saw in PEI was that people just categorized to county even though they new the community.

by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (410k points)
In Western Canada, i.e., Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, the county or municipal district are not, and have never been, a governmental level which has been involved in vital statistics collection, marriage licenses, land title registrations, or anything else that is of interest to the genealogist.

Nor have they been a significant level in postal addresses, even before the advent of the postal code.

Some genealogy related databases have used the census division in place of the county, however this is a completely artificial entity defined and arbitrarily redefined by Statistics Canada (and it's predecessors) for it's own proposes of collecting and analyzing the statistics collected by the national and regional population census, and the variety of other census data that is collected.

Most people would not know their census division and could not tell you what it was, if asked. They are more likely to know their county, municipal district, school district, or incorporated populated place (City, Town, Village) as these governmental entities levy taxes and administer land use zoning, among other local responsibilities.

This is why this restriction is left to various teams to decide. Western Canada is quite different from the Maritimes.  In NB, most people will know the parish they are in. My people are in Alnwick Parish and that is what the early records all indicate (it was created in 1786). They will also mention Northumberland County, but Alnwick is more specific. Land records might also only mention Northumberland but if you don't locate a land grant on a map you've missed an important piece of information for genealogy. For PEI, everything goes to the Lot (they have parishes which tend not to be used). Lots are more like townships with potentially multiple communities, villages, towns, etc. inside. They started as proprietorships so Lots became the important unit.

Anyway, the decision on what the highest level to allow profiles in should based on local usage.

+5 votes
County or shire is a division within a country. England and Ireland do not have states


USA ,state, city or town

England, shire, city or town

Ireland, county, city or town

That is 3 tiers

Australia, State, city or town
by Marion Poole G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
The United States of America is not entirely united in its naming and subdivisions conventions.  The State of Louisiana has Parishes instead of Counties.   The State of Delaware subdivides its Counties into Hundreds (which were supposed to have 100 families of 10 people each, including servants).  Many States' Counties were subdivided into Townships, then Towns, Boroughs, Districts, and Cities were carved out of, and no longer part of, the Townships.  Sometimes Cities expanded to the borders of an entire County and eliminate all of the other subdivisions of that County.  In the State of New Jersey, there are some Unincorporated areas in a County that are not part of any subdivision, or where the subdivision no longer exists.  The State of New York has Towns instead of Townships, with Villages and Cities as subdivisions of them.  Some of the Villages exist in parts more than 1 Town or even County.   New York City is a special case, it expanded to include all of 5 Counties, and each of those Counties is also composed of an entire Borough.  The State of Virginia has some 38 Independent Cities that are not part of any County.  The Cities of Baltimore, Maryland and St. Louis, Missouri seceded from the Counties they were once part of, and Ormsby County, Nevada ceased to exist when it merged with Carson City, which is no longer part of any County.

Other parts of the United States may have different complications.
+4 votes
In Ireland, Counties are the most common political boundary used.  On WikiTree, Counties in Ireland have been turned into sub-projects for the Irish Roots Project.  Eventually, hopefully, each County will have a coordinator to contact when issues like this come up.  I look after County Armagh, for example.  If someone needs a profile added to the county level because there's no townland known, it can still be done.  Just not from the drop down menu.  This prevents overcrowding on the county page.  For example, at one point, County Armagh had over 400 profiles (2 pages) attached.  I've got it down to just over 100 now, by chaning the category to a townland level.

Hope that helps.

by Amy Gilpin G2G6 Mach 9 (99.3k points)
Thank you. It does help.  For many of my Irish ancestors, I am lucky to have even a county for their birthplace. I hope that categorization at this level may help in finding the townland.
+2 votes

In Québec, so-called ''counties'' in modern times are actually electoral ridings, whether provincial or federal.  So you actually get 2 ''county'' designations for the same place.  The term gets used loosely.

And, they keep being renamed, changed, divided, eradicated.....

Provincially they were actually replaced by MRC's (Municipalité Régionale de Comté), in the 1980s.  Just to get an idea of them, try https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_former_counties_of_Quebec which is the English side of the Wikipedia article, if you read French flip it and see the fuller explanations on that one.  Older counties were only created in 1855, with some administrative precursors.

So using a ''county'' designation here is really a large misnomer.

by Danielle Liard G2G6 Pilot (332k points)

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