Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Using Standard Place and Date Functions on FamilySearch Family Tree

One very little understood and often misused rule for genealogists is the need to record place names as they were at the time any particular event occurred. The reason for this rule is that any documents created at or near the time of the event will most likely refer to the place as it was called or officially named at the time. Even though this is the rule, there may be a need to search for documents or information using the current place name, so both are important.

For example, the place where my Tanner family great-grandparents lived changed names a few times over the years. In addition, although the physical location of the place did not change, the county boundaries, name of the place and the political jurisdiction changed and the place was included in three different counties depending on the time period involved. Here is a timeline showing the changes:

1877: Allen's Camp, Yavapai County, Territory of Arizona, United States
1879: St. Joseph, Apache County, Territory of Arizona, United States
1895, St. Joseph, Navajo County, Territory of Arizona, United States
1912: St. Joseph, Navajo County, Arizona, United States
1923: Joseph City, Navajo County, Arizona, United States

Nothing moved and nothing changed except the boundaries and political jurisdictions. It is very likely that almost every place on the face of the earth has had similar changes. Even the names of physical locations, such as rivers and mountain ranges change over time. There are a couple of things to note. The inclusion of the word "county" in the name is not necessary. Some genealogical database programs include the word "county" and others do not. Family Tree usually does not. There is some disagreement over the use of United States vs. USA. Some programs will let the user switch globally between the two different terms meaning that you can change all of the entries in your database at the same time from one to the other. You will need to check to see which term is preferred by the program you are using, although there is little chance of confusion no matter which is used.

In the distant past (a few years ago) many genealogists were accustomed to added extra commas in place names to show omitted places. So for example, you might see something like this

,, Arizona, United States

The two extra commas were used to indicate that the city and county were unknown. This was the common practice with the Personal Ancestral File program. It is no longer desirable or necessary to add the extra commas. If you have entries with the commas, you may find that the place names do not sort properly in a list of place names. Entries with these extra commas need to be edited to remove the commas.

Some current genealogical database programs (i.e. programs that store names, places, dates etc.) suggest "standard" place names. There are various levels of such standards. For example, the United States Postal System includes, what are called, ZIP codes. These are standard numbers used to indicate a specific area in the United States. In the not too distant past, these numbers have been expanded to be more specific. I am not aware of any of the current genealogy programs that utilize ZIP codes as part of a place name, although I suppose some of them would allow you to do so. Another type of standard is that used by the United States Geological Survey (  the USGS uses a standardized way of referring to various geographical features and places. uses a standardized place name to make it easier for the program to find a specific location in its database of place names. The issue that arises in conjunction with this practice is the fact that many users are not familiar with the method of preserving the original place name, so we see events such as a birth in 1880 in St. Joseph, Apache County, Territory of Arizona, United States recorded as Joseph City, Navajo, Arizona. It is true that it is really the "same place" but by obscuring the location as it was called at the time, the researcher is causing subsequent researchers to perhaps look in the wrong county for information.

The preservation of the original place name is important for historical purposes and as an aid to finding where the records made at the time may have ended up. If the researchers are not aware of both the change in the status of the area known as Arizona and the changes in county jurisdiction, they may not be able to find existing records. One of the real challenges of genealogical research is identifying these original place names and then tracking down where the records may have gone.'s Family Tree has a rather complicated way of preserving the original place names. At the same time, these names are added to the standard list in order to make the process of using an original place name much easier. In Family Tree, place names may also include a specific location such as a farm or cemetery. This further assists the researcher in finding pertinent records.

I advise all of the users of FamilySearch Family Tree to carefully review the instructions for preserving original place names. I will be explaining those instructions in a post in the near future. Meanwhile here is the link for the Help Center article explaining how this is done:

You can also search the Help Center for the name of the article, "Entering standardized dates and places."

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