Using Historical Place Names

A good question came up on my favorite genealogy Facebook group, Genealogy! Just Ask! yesterday. I tried to answer it as best I could on the original post, and others gave some good input as well, but I thought it would be helpful to some if I answered it more in depth here on my blog. Here is the original question:

“I want to get some clarification. My family came from Czechoslovakia, lived there in the 1661-1840s when they migrated to the States. With the Czech history they go by different names depending on the leadership years. How should I properly address their location of birth? Czech Republic, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Lands of the Bohemian Crown??? Please help me out. Thank you…”

I responded with the way I have solved the problem, which is how I remember being taught by my professors at Brigham Young University. (Although I should point out that they don’t necessarily all agree on how this should be done. Every genealogist has their own method of organizing their data that makes sense to them.) The method I use is to go by what the country, (and city and other jurisdictions) was called when the event happened. So if they were born in Pilsn, Austria-Hungary, record that as the location of their birth. If they also died in Pilsn, but it was now a part of Czechoslovakia when they died, record that they died in Pilsn, Czechoslovakia. If their son also died in Pilsn, but by that time it was the Czech Republic, then record that he died in Pilsn, Czech Republic, and so on. It makes it easier to understand the history and figure out how to find more records if you do it that way. In European countries, it is especially helpful to know what country or empire the place was a part of at the time of the event, because the language of the records changes depending on the ruler. Austro-Hungarian records, although the ones regarding Czech cities are stored in archives in the current Czech Republic, are recorded in German, rather than the current national language of Czech. There are also German names for lower jurisdictions, including cities, as well as modern Czech names. It can all be very confusing if you do not have a system for organizing it. (By the way, while I was researching for this post, I found this cool video showing a map of Europe and how the country borders have changed over time. It has some historical errors, but it is still fun to watch. It really makes you think about how we take for granted that political boundaries and places names are set in stone. Watch it on YouTube.)

You can add a side note explaining things if you want. Or you could do something like Pilsn, Bohemia, Czech Republic, putting the modern name on the end for clarification. I do a lot of German places so I will do something like “Gross Upahl, Unterfranken, Bavaria, Germany,” even though Germany as a country didn’t exist at the time, Bavaria was in what is now Germany. So I put Germany at the end for clarification.

Someone else commented and pointed out that if you put the most current place name in the place field and then in the description field, use the historical name, then the computer will be able to figure out where it is located and map it out as well as provide you with search hints if such features are available. This is a really good point, especially for sites such as To best use their features, you should use a place name that the system understands. (Although it would be helpful if the system understood those historical place names as well.)

One problem I see with this approach, however, is that you would have to keep going in and manually updating your data so that it reflects the current names of the locations. So all of the places that you put in for Eastern Europe back in the day, you would have to go in and change after the Iron Curtain came down. Go in and change all the “East Germany” places to “Germany”, and take out “Soviet Union” from various place names, then update them to Czechoslovakia, then the Czech Republic, or whatever. Still, with computer-aided “Find and Replace” searches, this does not have to be very hard, the problem is mainly remembering to change them.

The software I use, Rootsmagic 7, seems to think that the historical-names-first approach is the best. It has an automatic place-checking feature called “CountyCheck.” If I put in, for example, George Washington, born 22 February 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia, United States, it gives me a notification saying “United States wasn’t created until 15 November 1777.” It suggests I use “British America” instead. This makes sense to me. The fact that George Washington was born in “British America,” rather than the “United States of America,” is a defining part of his life. To say merely that he was born in the USA takes something from his history.

british america

The FamilySearch Family Tree has a very intelligent (and I think underutilized) solution to this problem. Ron Tanner discussed this at RootsTech this month in his talk titled “What’s New in Family Tree for 2016.” He pointed out that many users have given negative feedback about the error message that shows up on their ancestors’ pages saying that there is “no standard selected” for places for vital events. Here is a picture:

Missing Standardized birthplace

Ron Tanner explained that FamilySearch Family Tree has two locations attached to any event. A “Place” and a “Standardized Place.” The “Standardized Place” is to help the computer know where to look for record hints and so on. It is linked to a database of places that the computer can use. The “Place” is what the user sees. It can be clarified for human eyes without confusing the computer. In his words:

“Why do we need standards? We need standards so the computer can understand where that place is. We use that data to find matches, to let “search” work, and to find possible duplicates. That’s why we need it.”

“Why is standards a separate field? Because our standards library doesn’t have every place that’s ever existed on the planet. We don’t want to lose the good data that you’re giving us, because you know the exact place, even if the standards doesn’t understand it, so we want you to enter it all in.”

select standard

In the field under “Birthplace,” you can type the place name as you know it. Then in the yellow field, you click on “Click here to select a place,” and it has a dialog where you can select the standard place. Then it will turn green like the standardized year field above. Standards are also very useful for dates, but I won’t go into explaining that right now.

select standard2

I think this is a very smart feature. Use the most current standard name for the “standard” place. The computer has its own database of place names and it can be easily updated to reflect the most politically correct names for current times. At the same time, you have a separate field for the “real” place, so you can indicate what it was called at the time, or give the name of a city that doesn’t exist anymore and isn’t included in the database, or add a cemetery or church name, or whatever you want to do, but the computer can still find the “standard” place and put it on the map.

What do you think? Do you think this is a smart move on FamilySearch’s part? Do you think other programs need to have similar features? Do you prefer using the most current place name, or the historical place name in your genealogy database?


One thought on “Using Historical Place Names

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *