“Why is it not on the map?” We discuss how learning history can help you in your family history research–especially when it involves areas with shifting boundaries and name changes!
One of the biggest frustrations for a family historian is finding a new place name written in a family record … but then not being able to find that place on a modern-day map, as was the issue we recently discussed in our blog article, Finding Vital Records for Galicia, Austria-Hungary.
Sometimes this quandary develops because the place name has been mangled through phonetic or oral transmission over generations or after immigration. In other instances, it may be due to an actual change of the place’s name or a shift in the boundaries of the higher jurisdiction to which the place belonged politically. This can happen anywhere in the world, but we’ll give some examples from both the United States and Europe, as well as a suggestion about how to account for place name changes in your family history records.
Why Is It Not on the Map?
It’s not unusual for communities’ names to change for a variety of reasons. In Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, for example, the names of nearly every major city or borough have been altered. Its county seat Lebanon was begun as Steitztown (in honor of founder George Steitz) but the Moravian religious community was prominent enough to justify the shift to the current name.
Two boroughs in the same county were both named and renamed for their initiators but in opposite ways—present-day Fredericksburg was originally Stumpstown but traded its founder Frederick Stump’s surname for his given name. Jonestown, on the other hand, was originally Williamsburg, going from the first name of founder William Jones to his surname.
In Lebanon County’s case, there’s A Gazetteer of Lebanon County, Pennsylvania by David J. Bachman (Masthof Press, 2007) that lists all the historical and present-day names. Many counties have similar publications or online tools.
Learn Some History
In addition to the garbling of names that might require learning phonetics of foreign languages, you could also find that previously separate villages have been merged into bigger cities and erased from the map. Municipal mergers in Germany, for example, resulted in the villages of Niedereisenbach and Hachenbach—separated by the Glan River—being connected with the new name of Glanbrücken, which won’t be seen on maps created before its founding in the 1970s.
This is especially a thing in Europe’s German lands, where historically there was much upheaval and a “non-linear” pattern of history was followed. In the United States, new municipalities and counties are generally created from existing entities—a “linear” political history. Germany, on the other hand, was a collection of small, independent states that were constantly being sliced, diced and otherwise disconnected as noble dynasties went extinct, lost wars or were divided amongst sons.
Learn some History—Part 2!
Here’s an example of how maps and the political boundaries they show (as well as that historical background knowledge genealogists need) can help narrow down the focus of research even when a village of origin isn’t known.
A researcher was trying to find an immigrant ancestor whose birthplace is variously identified as Hesse-Darmstadt in the 1860 U.S. Census but as Prussia in the 1870 headcount—and sometimes as the entirely unhelpful “Germany.” While censuses can just be plain wrong, there’s a map of Hesse (Hessen in German) that gives a decent theory on how to square the circle of these various assertions of the immigrant’s birthplace.
The map “Hessen bis 1866” shows the boundaries before they were adjusted by a Prussian land grab that occurred in a war that year. The red boundaries on this map show Hessen-Darmstadt before that war; among the changes as a result was that the thin “arm” centered on Biedenkopf was ceded to Prussia, making the relatively small number of villages in that arm the prime suspects for the immigrant’s home village, since that would be consistent with reporting Hessen-Darmstadt as his place of birth in records before 1866 and Prussia afterwards.
Examples of Map Resources
Learning the history is helpful, but you’ll likely need map resources to help you interpret that history. There are maps and maps tools on many Internet sites (FamilySearch Wiki is a good place to start looking for them) but one of the best examples is MeyersGaz.org, which covers the Second German Empire that existed from 1871 to 1918, when the largest number of America’s No. 1 ethnicity came to the U.S.
The MeyersGaz website takes the writeups from the leading geographical dictionary of the time (known by the shortened title Meyers Gazetteer) profiling more than 100,000 places in the German Empire. But the website doesn’t stop with the original writeups—it includes locator maps (both from modern-day maps and a historical map from the late 1800s) as well as ways to the locate sites of church and civil registers.
In the example of a modern place name that won’t be found on historical maps, you can see here that today’s map (top) shows Glanbrücken while the historical map (bottom) shows Niedereisenbach and Hachenbach.
That Was Then, This Is Now
A question many genealogists have in situations such as this is the logical one: “How do I record the place name in my records?”
While there may be differences of opinion on some details, most genealogists would agree that the recording should at least give a nod to the name of the place (and the larger jurisdictions to which it belonged) at the time the event took place. Still and all, to make your information comprehensible to current and future readers, giving data “as of the present” is useful, too, at least as a parenthetical following the “as of the time of the event” reference. In the case we’ve been following here, a nineteenth-century family in what was then Niedereisenbach, the place reference would look like this:
Niedereisenbach, Sankt Wendel, Trier, Rhineland, Prussia (today, Glanbrücken, Kusel, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany)
At Legacy Tree Genealogists, our network of researchers “knows the code” about all sorts of name and boundary changes that may confuse the average genealogist. Contact us today for a free quote and to let us know what our experts can do for you.