Monday, February 28, 2011

Dear Randy: Why the false geography in your database?

Reader BK commented on my LADD Surname Saturday post:

"After all the posts about source citations ... why the false Geography in your database ?

"The Ladds were in Colonial America.  And the " US " did not exist yet.

"I hope you are entering the true locations during your database update."

I wondered how long it would take for a sharp-eyed reader to catch this in my Surname Saturday posts!  As astute readers know, I recently converted all of my Place locations to "Standard" places using Family Tree Maker 2011 software.  My reason for doing this was to enable geo-coding of the place names, and to get more consistency in my place names.  My understanding is that the FamilySearch Family Tree, and probably other online family trees in the future, will require Standard place names.  FamilySearch has a Standard Finder with their standard place names.

As BK points out, I no longer have the "historical place identification" associated with the places when many of my ancestral families were living in colonial America (including Canada).  Some examples:

*  The present state of Massachusetts was comprised of Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony until the two were merged before 1700.  The state of Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820.  Rhode Island was the colony of "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations."  New York was "New Amsterdam" before 1664.  And so on.

*  County names were changed and boundaries moved over time.  Some of the earliest towns presently in Essex County, Massachusetts were originally in Old Norfolk County (which included some New Hampshire towns also).  A "new" Norfolk County was  formed in 1793 and took part of Suffolk County in the process.  The "purist" genealogist would clearly define which county the records were in, and denote whether it was in Massachusetts Bay Colony, Suffolk County (before 1793) or Norfolk County (after 1793). 

*  Some town names were changed - for instance, Narragansett No. 2 became Westminster in Massachusetts, Raby became Brookline in New Hampshire, etc.  Town boundaries changed over time.

*  The area west of the Appalachian Mountains were native American areas or colonial provinces of England, Spain, France, Russia, then Territories of the United States, and then States.  The southern states seceded in 1861 are were re-admitted to the Union after the Civil War.  The "purist" genealogist would say to use terms like "Cherokee territory," "Wisconsin Territory," "State of Franklin," "Alabama, CSA" for records during the time periods in question.

*  The area now the province of Ontario in Canada went through "Upper Canada," "Canada West," and then "Ontario" as Canada's situation changed. 

*  God only knows how many places in Germany and Eastern Europe should be called a Principality, or Duchy, or other jurisdictional terms.  The case can be made for using the present country names, in the native language, for countries all over the world, rather than the English translation, or equivalent.

Frankly, my genealogy database was really messed up insofar as Place names were concerned prior to standardizing my Place names.  If I had followed the "purist" route, I would have changed every place name in colonial or territorial times, or for town, county or state name or boundary changes, to the correct jurisdiction.

Unfortunately, the geo-coding and map definition in the software programs would be really fooled by many of the historical place names and I would probably have to change every one of them again - over 300,000 events - when they were ported to a family tree that requires Standard place names.

Therefore, I took the easy route - I standardized my Place names to the collection of places in Family Tree Maker 2011.  That permits me to use the mapping functions in the software, and will permit me, I hope, to upload my tree to family tree databases that require standard place names.  I can now identify the geographical location of an event.

As a seasoned genealogy researcher, I know that names and boundaries changed over historical time, and I know that part of my research task is to determine the proper jurisdiction of each Place in my database and search in the appropriate repositories for the records in those jurisdictions. 

I appreciate and encourage the "purist" genealogists, those who consistently use the historical jurisdictions in their database, and are sticklers for accuracy and completeness. I also understand that peer-reviewed publications usually want the historical place names used, especially when names and boundaries have changed. 

Even though my database uses the Standard place names, and the standard convention of "Town, County, State, Country (for the USA)," the genealogy software permits a place description to be added for specific events.  Therefore, I will eventually add comments to the description such as "was Raby town before 1797," or "was in Suffolk County before 1793" to help the reader understand some of the historical jurisdictions.

What does your database have?  Are all of your place names consistent - either historical jurisdictions or present standard names?   How have you managed this place name and record jurisdiction problem?

Thank you, BK, for the interesting comment.


Becky Higgins said...

I've made similar changes to my database for the same reasons you stated. I, too, am trying to either use the "original" location in the description or in notes.

Actually, I'm finding the "new" way works better for me because my geography skills are terrible. At least, I (and others) can now "see" where the ancestors lived without searching for an old map.

Mel said...

When I first started researching I used Territory of Hawaii. But, a couple of years ago I went through all my place names and revert them to "HI". If I had wanted to be a purist, I should have been using Kingdom of Hawaii for those before Hawaii became a US territory. It was a more logical fix to standardize HI.

For cities that have changed names I've taken to using the name that is in the record and then putting in parenthesis the current name. For example, my Pacheco's are from Fenais da Vera Cruz but it's now called Fenais d'Ajuda. So as not to confuse myself when looking for records I input the place as Fenais da Vera Cruz (Fenais d'Ajuda). I don't know if this is proper but it keeps things straight for me.

DearMYRTLE said...

Hiya Randy,
I am very frustrated that those same sites and software programs cannot add the historical name of places to their databases. Unfortunately, it seems most use a single outside source for their geo-coding database.

I just hate to have the "real name" for any place relegated to the obscurity of history merely because doesn't fit modern-day definitions.

John said...

The children and grandchildren of the people who arrived at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower in 1620 were surely born in Plymouth Colony, not Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA. I always use historical placenames in my database.
I don't really care if Google Maps or Bing Maps can't understand my terminology. I know what I mean when I say a person was born in Upper Canada, married in Canada West, and died in Ontario, Canada without ever having moved.
Proud to be a purist,
John Carruthers

Unknown said...

I really like the explanation and reasoning you've given. I wouldn't necessarily call myself a "purist" but I mainly have locations listed as they would have been historically named. However, it never once occured to me to listed my GG-Grandmother as having been born in the CSA, though technically she was.

Often, if I know that a place name has changed, I will list the original name, with the current name in brackets. For example, one relative died in Summit, GA, which is now Twin City. I listed it as Summit [Twin City], Swainsboro, Georgia, USA. So I'm giving preference to the original name, but giving the current name as well. Also, my software does not map locations, so it is currently not an issue for me.

Bill Buchanan said...

Randy, I have been involved in the same debate.

Bill Buchanan to AncestralQuest Feb 13

I would like to see separate fields for BOTH the historical and current place names...

I would be reluctant to be limited to historical place names such as: "Fort Augustus, Ruperts Land, Colonial America" i.e. Where on earth is that? (If we are talking about the particular Fort Augustus that was on the North Saskatchewan River, built near the present city of Fort Saskatchewan, I can probably find someone who could locate the site. Of course, Fort Augustus was relocated in 1801 to where the city of Edmonton now stands, so as of some date in 1801, the same historical place name becomes a different locality.)

Historical place names tended to be local names. There were probably other forts in Ruperts Land that at some time or other were called "Fort Augustus", each one recognized by the people living there as "their" Fort Augustus. Of course, each of the native tribes trading there would have had different names for it in their own languages (good luck in trying to identify places using these). On the other hand, current names tend to be global names, that specify one particular place in the world. i.e. They are a quick and easy reference to the actual location of events.

I see a need to display BOTH historical and current place names, after all BOTH history and geography are important.

Someone suggested GPS coordinates, and that seems like a promising idea, but still not perfect. They offer a degree of precision that has little regard for the fact that place names are often the name of a sprawling city, a rural district, or the closest town to the family farm. The ability to specify a place within a few feet may give an erroneous impression, the actual event may have taken place many miles from there.

A complex topic.

Bill Buchanan

Charley "Apple" Grabowski said...

I haven't standardized my place names because I will loose all of the old names. For some records I have old name, now know as and others the opposite - current name and previously called. A real mess that I doubt I'll ever get totally straightened out.