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.


Organise your files

When I was younger, feeling overwhelmed by all that I had to do, my mother would say ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ ‘One bite at a time’, I’d reply. It’s a great saying because not only is it practical advice but it also makes light of what might seem insurmountable.

Organising your family history research papers and electronic files might seem like an insurmountable task, especially if you have been researching for some time. But if you tackle it like you eat an elephant, then it can be done.

In family history we are lucky because an organisational structure is built in to our family structure. We have two parents and four grandparents – or in my case, six grandparents as my father was adopted. However many you have, that gives you a basic organisational structure. So, the first bite of the elephant is to divide your files into those groupings – two, four, six or eight, whichever works for you. Once you have done that, it won’t seem quite overwhelming.

When you have the energy for another bite, you then divide those groups further. Surnames make good subgroups, because our research tends to focus on surnames and your organisational scheme needs to support your research process. If you work mostly with paper, you could set up four boxes or in-trays, one for each grandparent. Manila folders could be placed in them for the Surnames.

I prefer to store my files electronically. Within each surname folder I have a subfolder for each generation and the next level is subfolders for: Certificates, Images & Photos, Notes, Reports and Research & Analysis. I also include a folder called Work In Progress within each Surname folder, so if I don’t have time to file things properly I can at least save them into the correct Surname folder and they are there waiting for me when I do have time.

The structure you use is up to you. The important thing is to divide the task up into manageable bites.

PS I do not endorse eating real elephants!

Elephant photo by Mylon Ollila on Unsplash


Fix those missing source citations

It’s important to set aside time to update your family tree by adding source citations to information that does not have any.

If you have been researching for a long time or have not been conscientious about adding sources as you go, then you may have a lot of work to catch up on. To make this seemingly endless task achievable, you should break it into smaller chunks – perhaps one hour a week or fortnight. Don’t forget to measure your progress – seeing that number of missing source citations dropping is motivation to keep at it!

If you use family history software, you should be able to find a feature that tells you which information in your tree currently has no source citations attached. In Legacy, for example, under the Search tab select Find, then select Missing Sources. You can search for people who have no sources, or are missing source citations on one or more items. You can also narrow your search for people who are missing specific types of source citations, such as sources for the death date and place. Click on Create List to generate a list. You can work through the list from this interface, or click the Options button then select Print. That gives you the option of saving the list as a PDF or as a CSV file. I prefer the CSV format because I can open it in Excel and mark them off as I complete the citations.

If your tree is online with Ancestry, FamilySearch or another site, you will need to impose your own structure to work through your tree systematically adding source citations. One way to make it manageable might be to work on one surname at a time, starting from yourself and working backwards in time.

Of course not all sources are equal in quality and there is also the question of how many sources you need to cite, but those are issues for discussion at another time. One source is better than none, two independent sources are better, and if you find more then it’s time to celebrate.

Choose a method works for you and get stuck into it. The benefits are worth it!