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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Genealogy of a County
by Rhonda R. McClure

February 28, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Here it comes, my pet peeve, well one of them anyway. While I love to share research and correspond with others, I get frustrated sometimes with the information I am given that does not follow genealogical standards. We have standards in genealogy to aid all of us and to ensure that the information that we share is not misconstrued by someone in a different country our who would normally record dates in a different way.

Among those standards is the recording of place names. I am amazed by some of the ways that I see individuals recording place names, and worse, I find myself sometimes falling into that pattern as well, so while I am frustrated with others, rest assured I am as frustrated with myself when I take the lazy way out.

Standards help prevent errors.

Place Names - the Standard

Most of us know that when we record the place where an event took place for an ancestor, that we record it with the town, or city, followed by the county, and then the state when working in the United States. Such an entry looks like this

    Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts

A similar approach is done when we are researching in other countries, though the divisions may be town, shire, and country, or parish, town, province, country.

Regardless of the place, we always work from the smallest known jurisdiction to the largest. Of course, when we only know the county, then it is important to include something that identifies the county. For example

    Moultrie County, Illinois

But what do you do when the town existed in another county when the event took place? Or the county splits into two, and your initial events took place in one county and the others took place in the newly created county?

Place Names at the Time of the Event

The standard is to record a place name as it existed at the time of the event. Sometimes you know this information already, where as other times you may not, especially when the information has come from another researcher.

If you are working in original records, such as birth records or marriage records, it is probable that the record itself will give you this information. After all many of these records are recorded on the county level, and as such if you have found the record then you are in the correct in the county to begin with. Well, usually.

West Virginia is a perfect example of this. The records for the counties that split from Virginia to form West Virginia went with the counties to create West Virginia. However, before West Virginia existed, those same counties were a part of Virginia. If you share information saying that the marriage took place in 1785 in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, you are misleading those you share with. While the county of Greenbrier existed in 1785, having been created in 1778, in the year 1785 it was a part of Virginia.

When it is the fact that a county was created, that is also important. Revisiting the county of Moultrie in Illinois, I know that Moultrie County was created in 1843 out of Shelby and Macon Counties. If I am trying to see what families had a male child age 2 in the 1840 census, I must know that I need to look in Shelby and Macon counties. If the information I have been sent says that John Standerfer was born in 1839 in Moultrie County, Illinois, then that is misleading to me, as he was not and could be born in a county that did not exist.

Instead, if we want to include the present-day county, we should say something about both counties. John Standerfer was born in 1839 in that part of Shelby County that became Moultrie County in 1843. This lets those I am researching with know that there are now two counties to research in and when the split took place.

In Conclusion

In a perfect world we would know the pedigrees of the counties as well as we know our own pedigree. And while some do and do adhere to this standard, unfortunately more do not, resulting in misinformation that misleads individuals into frustration as they try to find the information in question. The next time you are going to share some information, take a moment to make sure you are sharing the information with the correct place, based on when the event took place.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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