Monday, July 25, 2011

Monday Mailbox: County or Parish?

Dear Insider,

I enjoy reading your columns. Thank you for all that you do. 

I have a problem with that I have written them about to no avail. I wonder if you can help or at least write a column about it to bring it to their attention. 

Not all states have always used counties for their political divisions. South Carolina used courthouse districts from about 1800 until about 1868. always indexes a district, such as Williamsburg District as “Williamsburg, Williamsburg” and Sumter District as “Sumter, Sumter.” This seems to indicate that people lived in Sumter town in Sumter County, which they usually did not. They lived in Sumter District and Sumter town was one place within the District. I don’t think there even is a “Williamsburg, Williamsburg.”

People add this mistaken data to their trees which extends and perpetrates the problem.

A similar problem arises in Louisiana, where they use parishes to this day, and in territories, where often has the territory indexed as a state before it actually became a state. They really need to index a place as what it actually says it is, not try to fit it into a set mode such as county or state. 

Thanks for “listening,”

Dear Teresa,

Thank you. I appreciate your kind words.

As you are no doubt aware, those are not the only problems. It is common practice in computerized databases to shoehorn place names into three levels of jurisdiction without specifying jurisdiction types. Thus these places:

Beverly Farms (a neighborhood of Beverly city), Essex county, Massachusetts commonwealth
Bristol village, Bristol town, Addison county, Vermont state
Bristol town (outside the village), Addison county, Vermont state

often appear as:

Beverly Farms, Essex, Massachusetts
Bristol, Addison, Vermont
Bristol, Addison, Vermont

Add a plethora of exceptions. Add a multitude of oddities (Salt Lake city vs. Salt Lake City). Add boundary disputes and overlapping claims. Add historical changes. Add old world jurisdictions. Add civil versus church. Add all these factors together and it presents a major challenge to

I would be interested in hearing from your fellow readers. When it comes to locale issues, what are your favorites?

-- The Insider


  1. My "pet peeve" on places in users' databases is that so many of them won't inlude

    USA (or some representation of "United States of America")

    at the end of the place string. This leads to 2 obvious problems:

    1 - it affords US states the same "level" of hierarchy as other countries for any computer routine that attempts to group places together by processing the place entities from right to left - so for example:

    Grand Rapids, Kent, MI
    New Orleans, Orleans, LA*
    Kaiapoi, Canterbury, New Zealand

    MI and LA are given the same "rank" as New Zealand.
    *Orleans is of course Orleans Parish not Orleans County
    *LA - is this Louisiana or Los Angeles?

    This page

    for example shows the benefits of consistency - all of the "top level" places in my file are countries. Compare to this page

    which is from a database comprised of contributions from many different submitters - countries and US states are mixed together, states are abbreviated and spelled out- essentially a shambles

    2 - it leads to confusion. Is

    Perth, WA

    a place in Washington State, USA, or is it something entered by an Australian who thinks he doesn't need to put Australia at the end of all the Australian place names in his database, so it represents "Perth, Western Australia, Australia

    My other peeve is use of abbreviations - not everyone knows what WA stands for, particularly in the contextless example above, so always spell things out. The 3 "exceptions" I allow myself are use of:

    Twp. for Township
    Co. for County
    USA for United States of America

    Everything else I spell out – the days of being limited to some small, finite number or characters for place strings are over.


  2. Another situation that gives rise to this confusion is census districts, when they do not match the province (state), county, township boundaries. This is a particular problem in some years of the Canadian census, especially in the census just after a county boundary changes due to a split or other change. For instance, Melancthon Township was in Grey County, Ontario, until 1881, when it became part of Dufferin County as a result of some reorganization of boundaries. However, in the 1881 and 1891 censuses, the census district is still identified as Grey East instead of Dufferin West (or something like that). It behooves all of us as genealogists to look carefully at source documents carefully and in context before recording the data. Aside from accuracy issues with creating the index, we also have to ensure that the document content is correct in context. Trusting the index to be correct or that the (correctly-indexed) data accurately reflects reality is bad practice.

  3. More on the Canadian situation as described by cajflem.
    Ancestry have recently changed their suggested possibilities for Toronto. They now start "Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada" followed by "Toronto, Ontario, Canada". These two used to be covered by "Toronto, York, Ontario, Canada" which followed the municipality within the county within the province within the country rule. I am using Ancestry to check a census transcription and find it much more difficult to find people now than I used to. The index is sending me all over the province even when I request the named place only. People who could be found at the top of the first page are now on page 3 or 4. Time wasting--not half!
    BTW, Canadian census boundaries were never based on county boundaries but on electoral districts of the last election before the census was held. Hence the census district of Grey East in Dufferin County. Hence the problem in 1881 and 1891.

  4. I had a recent go-round with Ancestry via email about the fact that West Virginia was not a state at the time of the 1850 and 1860 census. The area that became West Virginia was still part of Virginia until 1863.

    It took 3 tries to get the customer service person to understand that there really was no such place as Nicholas County, West Virginia in 1850. But Ancestry doesn't offer the option to search for Nicholas County, Virginia for the 1850 and 1860 census. So there is no way to limit a search to one county.

    At a quick glance it appears that this problem affects 50 counties for any records before 1863.

  5. AI, I have found the pervasive scheme you outline very frustrating.

    I suspect it originated in the brain of some non-genealogist involved in developing the GEDCOM format, for the sake of minimizing file-size. This postulated developer did not grow up in a family or area where most of the folks in the environment did not live in a city and neither had their kin done so for untold past generations.

    The pervasive scheme also confuses rather new genealogists who have not gotten familiar with the territory they are dealing with. Like the folks who ask how far X is from Y to a mailing list, rather than look at a map.

    So one can read warped genealogical accounts in trees where (taking WV as an example) most persons living between 1755 and 1955 were born in "Morgantown" since that's the only place in northern WV they recognize as a locality. Another that makes my teeth hurt is placing folks' vital events for generations in "Mannington". Well, there is Mannington Magisterial District, within which is the town Mannington. One tree host of my acquaintance recently removed the distinction, "Mannington, Mannington District, Marion County, West Virginia" to make it just "Mannington, Marion, West Virginia," so that the residences of 95% of Mannington Magisterial District residents who never lived in the rather small town are wildly blurred.

    And since first names and surnames are often repeated generation after generation, it is necessary to distinguish between XY who lived on Quaker Fork of Bingamon Creek from XY who lived on Glade Fork and XY who lived on Flaggy Meadow Run -- their vital dates may be similar and spouses' names may be similar or even the same. And since the center of the USA is full of very old long and winding rivers, the name of the main watershed is just not sufficient.

    Genealogists should no longer be allowed to do generalistic blah-blah-blah. Genealogy is very specific as to time and place, and the database managers need to facilitate specific searches.

    Which also points to the difficulty that MS and google have with mapping geopolitical entities such as Magisterial Districts, Beats, Townships, Boroughs (don't get me started on New Jersey and Pennsylvania) and the Towns of NY and New England. These civil entities often are crucial for locating useful records, quite aside from the cities where the developers live.

    We Need Specificity!

  6. "We Need Specificity!"
    But do we? Do we even agree across the entire discipline just what should happen in these circumstances? And would the newbies understand?

    Do we, for instance, agree what should happen in a search across time for "Harpers Ferry, Virginia, USA"? Should it pick up the census results for "Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, USA"? And if so, why shouldn't "Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, USA" pick up "Harpers Ferry, Virginia, USA"? And if not, do you seriously suggest these are 2 different places, needing 2 searches? And how many newbies without the connection to the area even know about the change?

    Sure, I'll bet several people will be quite dogmatic about what the answers should be. But will they all, newbies as well, agree?

    Put simply - things are difficult - to every rule there is an exception and I quite seriously doubt how anyone without specific knowledge is able to code and codify it all. Quite how we expect Ancestry to do so, across the globe, I dunno.

  7. Dear Readers,

    I wanted to share a couple more examples mentioned by Amy Johnson Crow in a session at FGS. Sometimes a city is not located in its namesake county. She gave Witchita, Kansas and Fairfield, Ohio as examples. Wichita is not in Wichita County. Fairfield is not in Fairfield County.

    I guess it also worth mentioning Kansas City, Missouri.

    -- The Insider


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