Resolving place names

Getting the places right is fundamental to family history research. After all, everything your ancestors did, they did in a place, right? It is the places that things were done which help us figure out if we are looking at our ancestor and not an imposter with the same name. Place names also help us research the history and events that had an impact on our ancestors’ lives. And, getting the place right stops us from looking for records of our ancestors in the wrong place.

No matter how you record your family history – whether it be in family history software, an online tree, a book, an excel spreadsheet or pieces of paper – from time to time you need to sit, review and correct the place names in your family history. The exact process will vary depending on how you record your family history, but here are some general tips.

Review your place names and make them as specific and complete as possible. You cannot assume that everyone knows which Mount Pleasant you are referring to, or where Tomerong is. A complete place name should have at least three parts. In Australia, we have suburb/town/city, state or territory, and country. Record the place name starting with the smallest unit and ending with the largest. Use Wikipedia or a gazetteer to verify that you have recorded a place correctly.

Place names change and so do boundaries. Check that you have recorded place names as they were called at the time of the event. This helps you search in the right jurisdiction for other records and related people. Current names can be added as notes. Be wary of computer programs and online trees which attempt to standardise place names. If they don’t have the place name in their database, it can be tempting just to use the nearest place that they do contain.

If you use family history software, check if you can edit the master list of locations as well as correcting individual entries. Changes made to such lists are then applied to all individuals using that location. If you use an online tree, such as Ancestry, you can manually edit place names to apply any necessary corrections. In addition to the issues mentioned above, look for inconsistencies, such as the example below.

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