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

Monday, June 20, 2016

Check your place names for accuracy on the FamilySearch Family Tree

Salt Lake 1885-1896
While doing some research into Danish ancestors on the Family Tree, I was once again reminded of the importance of closely checking the accuracy of the place names. The standard method of representing place names in a genealogical context is to list them from the smallest jurisdiction to the largest. For example:

(house or farm), (village, town or city), (county or district), (state, district or province), (country)

In addition, as I have pointed out recently, the places need to correspond to their identity at the time the event occurred.

There is some controversy over such designations as "English Colonial Possessions" and other such designation. Another issue arises in designation such as "Arizona Territory" rather than just "Arizona." The idea is to convey not only the geographical location but also the place where records maintained at the time of the event may have been archived. In looking closely at the Family Tree, I find that it is extremely common to default to the name of the place as it is today, rather than take the time to determine the time related designation. So I have a huge number of ancestors who are identified as born in the "United States" before 1776 or the correct date of March 4, 1789.

This degree of accuracy may seem trivial or even inappropriate to some researchers. But when we look at the mish-mash of place names in some areas of Europe, it becomes apparent that the researchers' designation of places is one of the major impediments to understanding where to begin research. For example, my experience in the Family Tree has shown me that Scandinavian places are mislabeled over 80% of the time and so-called German place names are almost 100% inaccurate if the time the event occurred is considered. Ask yourself this simple question. When did the country of origin of my ancestors begin to be called by its present political name?

If your ancestor was born in Germany in the 1850s what country did he or she live in?

A beautiful 1855 first edition example of Colton's map of northern Germany. Covers the 19th century German provinces of Hanover, Holstein, and Mecklenberg Schwerin. Divided and color coded according to regional divisions. An inset in the lower left quadrant details Hamburg. Another in the lower right quadrant focuses on Bremen.. Throughout, Colton identifies various cities, towns, forts, rivers and assortment of additional topographical details. Surrounded by Colton's typical spiral motif border. Dated and copyrighted to J. H. Colton, 1855. Published from Colton's 172 William Street Office in New York City. Issued as page no. 12 in volume 2 of the first edition of George Washington Colton's 1855 Atlas of the World .
Would you have a different opinion were you to realize that this map was published in the United States and not in Europe? Would it help to know that the German Empire (Deutsches Kaiserreich) dates from 1871. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia: German Empire:
The German Empire consisted of 27 constituent territories, with most being ruled by royal families. This included four kingdoms, six grand duchies, six duchies (five after 1876), seven principalities, three free Hanseatic cities, and one imperial territory. Although the Kingdom of Prussia contained most of the Empire's population and territory, it played a lesser role. As Dwyer (2005) points out, Prussia's "political and cultural influence had diminished considerably" by the 1890s.[10]
Where would you find the records of your ancestor if all that was recorded of his or her origin was "Germany?"

Going back to Scandinavia for example, in Denmark the jurisdictional subdivisions are usually recorded as follows:

(hus eller gård), (kvarter), (by eller storby), (sogn), (herred), (ampter), Danmark

It might also help to know that the "herred" or hundred was an administrative division which was geographically part of a larger region; it was formerly used in England, Wales, some parts of the United States, Denmark, Southern Schleswig, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Norway. It is still used in other places, includingSouth Australia. See Wikipedia: Hundred (county division). This distinction might also help you to understand English place names when they speak of the "hundred" as a division between the parishes and the counties. 

Failure to understand these historical subdivisions causes most (but not all) of the confusion about identifying individuals with the same or similar names. You would probably benefit from researching and understanding the political, ecclesiastical and other subdivisions in your ancestors' countries before recording them incorrectly in the Family Tree.

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