You don’t have to have been doing genealogy research for very long to soon realize that place names change over time as boundaries and geopolitical jurisdictions are modified. In fact, learning how and when county boundaries and even country names in certain regions of Europe changed is often important to the success of locating primary source materials for our ancestors.

Professional genealogical standards dictate that a place name should be listed as it existed at the time of the event being recorded. Even though I have actively researched family history for almost 20 years, I developed a bad habit of changing my method to fit the situation when recording place names in the family trees I built.

Until recently.

Ever a nut for accuracy, it’s always made sense to me to use the following terminology for the very same homeplace when describing events in the lives of my colonial-era American ancestors, depending on the date:

  • Charles Cittie, Virginia Company, British America
  • Charles City Point, Charles City Shire, Colony of Virginia, Commonwealth of England
  • Hopewell, Prince George County, Virginia, United States of America

I was always bothered by seeing “Hopewell, Prince George County, Virginia, USA” in a tree for an event that happened in the 17th century! I just wouldn’t do it.

Tip: The Newberry Library maintains a really helpful online, interactive map for American location names called ATLAS OF HISTORICAL COUNTY BOUNDARIES

It had become fairly easy for me to track county boundary changes, and many search engines are programmed to catch these things.

What is more difficult for the modern genealogical researcher is to reflect the same kind of changes in foreign records.

When I went full time as a professional researcher I developed a bad habit of determining the actual current political location for a foreign historical village, and then using that current name for all events in a pre-immigration ancestor’s life. It was gentler on my brain. It kept things simpler for me when consulting foreign archives that are now organized by the current holding authorities’ structures, no matter who maintained them in the past. It also helped my clients know where their ancestral homelands were located today.

And thankfully, I was forced out of that newly forming bad habit and back into correct research protocols recently by a client case. As my client read the narrative on his grandfather’s immigration from what is now Poland, using records all gained from Polish archives, he realized some of the place names in my report left room for confusion.

You see, there had been a bit of a debate in his family on where Grandpa had come from. Most all of the documents they had from his lifetime indicated birth in Austria. His uncle and mother confirmed that their father came from Austria. However, some in the family thought that he came from Poland.

The fact is, everyone was right. In 1890, Grandpa left a town that was at that time within the borders of Austria-Hungary, and thus he would naturally state he was from Austria. Yet today if you wanted to visit his hometown, you would visit the country of Poland. His family was historically and ethnically Polish.

Even though my report clarified all this and explained the political changes and the name of his hometown written both ways, it left my client unsettled. He had hired me to understand more about a man he loved and respected. He wrote back:

“I really don’t want to insult grandpa and conclude he didn’t know where he came from.”

And I immediately got it. My “shortcut” for ease of dealing with foreign archives had a flaw. I quickly corrected a couple hundred entries (thank you, FTM Find and Replace!) and vowed never to make this lazy mistake again.

Yes, I know doing it this way is a little harder when working in foreign countries. It takes multiple steps of research for each record to ensure you get the labeling right in areas that were changing constantly. Using the old Rusyn or German names in Poland requires a lot of going back and forth consulting old lists to remember the old location names and then align them with the current geopolitical archival sources.

In this case, Grandpa’s great great grandfather was born around 1704 when his village had long been a part of the Kingdom of Poland. During this family patriarch’s lifetime his Polish nationality was replaced by Austrian citizenship. Later, when his great great grandson left the village to emigrate to America, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And by the time that man died in America, his home village – now deserted due to violent ethnic cleansing – was once again located in Poland.

So looking over the family tree you will now see the following place names for the very same village, some of them even changing in a particular ancestor’s lifetime.

  • Name in 1704: Grab, Jaslo County, Kingdom of Poland
  • Name in 1800: Grab, Jaslo County, Austrian Empire
  • Name in 1890: Grab, Jaslo County, Austro-Hungarian Empire
  • Currently: Grab, Gmina Krempna District, Jaslo County, Subcarpathian Voivodeship, Poland

Luckily, there are charts and articles all over the internet for the archaic village names in many European countries. Wikipedia also does a pretty good job of giving old place names, even including the various language forms of a particular place name. In the above illustrated case, the village had both a Polish and a Rusyn name, with neighboring towns adding a German (Austrian) version to describe it as well.

Of course, it’s important to know where a historical homeland is located today. If we’re lucky, some of us get to visit these places to reconnect with our roots. For geographic clarity, noting the modern location names in an ancestor’s page notes or in reports can be a really helpful thing, too.

It can indeed be tedious to constantly have to consult internet sources if you don’t happen to have a photographic memory. In the case described above we were pulling records in about 6 different Polish parishes in a couple of different modern day administrative districts. I wore out internet browser tabs and certain web pages. (I’m sure Google’s Maps algorithm is now convinced I live in Poland!)

TIP: Create a simple spreadsheet or note to keep handy as you research. Include all of the various place names for a location, including the years each was in use.

Striving for accuracy in historical research is important. It may seem like a small thing, yet recording place names as they were at the time of life events is a great way to promote genealogical excellence…something all family researchers should strive for!