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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Pinning Down Place Names
by Rhonda R. McClure

April 05, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Looking for the localities where our ancestors lived, worked, and died often leaves us empty handed. There are a number of different reasons that this might happen. Sometimes the frustration we are feeling pushes the obvious choices out of our mind.

While we are conscious of the generations and centuries as we are researching, we sometimes forget about the changes that took place as localities grew and expanded. The names of towns have changed. The boundaries of counties and states have changed. All of this affects our ability to locate a place name in modern resources. Many towns no longer exist, having either died out, changed their name or been incorporated into other cities.

Place names are not etched in stone.

Turning to an Atlas

When we discover a new place name, it is human nature to want to determine where that place is located. The first book you are likely to grab is an atlas. Present day atlases are fine when working with present day localities. However, it is not unusual to discover the place names of our ancestors cannot be found in such modern day atlases.

There are actually many different atlases. Some of them are designed to display maps of primarily large metropolitan areas. For our research this often results in many place names of interest being omitted since many of our ancestors lived in small towns or villages. Some of the places recorded in the records we stumble upon may have been unincorporated towns that were actually attached to larger cities. What this means to our research is that we are stumped by the place name, as we cannot find it in the atlas.

Atlas Alternatives

Other times, we need to pay attention to the date of the atlas. If it is a fairly modern one, then this may be the explanation as to why the place name is not appearing. Many places have changed names, been incorporated into larger cities or simply become true ghost towns — towns that no longer exist.

Another option for genealogists is to turn to a gazetteer. Simply put, a gazetteer is like a place dictionary. Organized alphabetically by the town and landmark names, you can look up a variety of names in a gazetteer.

Unlike an atlas, gazetteers are designed to list information about the smallest of towns and hamlets. You will find gazetteers for just about every country. They will usually detail for you the location of the town or village. If it was close to a larger city, this information is also included. Sometimes it will go so far as to include the county or shire where the town is located.

More on Gazetteers

An important aspect to using gazetteers is to pay attention to the publication date. Most atlases where published relatively recently whereas gazetteers can date back for a number of years. You may even find one close to the time period you are researching. This offers you the benefit of possibly finding a town or other locality listed under the name it had at the time your ancestors were living there.

A number of gazetteers can be found on microfilm and microfiche through the Family History Library. Some of them are part of the permanent fiche collection housed at local Family History Centers. Often these gazetteers were published in the late 1800s.

Like many of the other resources that we use, it is not surprising that there are online avenues to aid you with such research. Among them is the U.S. Geographic Survey's "Geographic Names Information System". This database of places is extensive. If the town or locality in question is still in existence, it is likely that you will find it listed in this database. The search engine is a simple one to use and the results appear quickly.

In Conclusion

Finding the places where our ancestors lived is more than just looking in the records we use to locate the events. Sometimes it is more important to learn about the place. Find out where it is located, what it is near and so forth. This sometimes requires research in resources such as gazetteers.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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