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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

10 Reasons Ancestor Hometowns are Hard to Find

Reasons finding ancestral place names is difficult

Frequently researchers struggle to locate an ancestor's location on a map from the little they do know about the place an ancestor lived. Why is it so difficult to document the locations where our ancestors lived in genealogy research?

Why Is It Hard to Learn the Place Name?

Excluding the lack of clues for where our ancestors originated or lived, we often struggle to identify a location on a map based on the places recorded on documents and passed down through family members. The following list explains some of the difficulties we face:

Non-Standard Spelling of Place Names

Often when I record the location of my ancestors in Lincoln, Ontario, I struggle to know which spelling of their town is correct. Should I record Gainsboro or Gainsborough? A variety of documents record the city's name both ways.

Spelling Errors In Records

I've read several examples where researchers tried in vain to find a location based on a handwritten document. Perhaps the name recorded looks like Brachvale, Canada. No should place appears on Canadian maps. However, the place was likely a poorly written and misspelled variation of Beachville, Oxford, Ontario, Canada.

Anglicizing of Foreign Place Names

When foreigners attempt to discuss their homeland, much is lost in translation. Additionally, some locations, such as Ireland, converted the names of their cities from Galic and other dialects to Anglicized names. This article discusses further the problems in researching Irish ancestors after the land names were converted to English.

Cities Named the Same as Provinces, Counties, or States

Suppose you read that your ancestor was from Nevada. Is that location the city in Vernon County, Missouri, or the state of Nevada?

How about an ancestor dying in Houston. Is that Houston, Harris County, Texas, or Houston County, Texas? The difference between the two locations is about 120 or more.

Do you want to pull your hair out when an ancestor record states they're from New York? Did they mean the city, county, or state? I mean, I lived in New York for a time period. When I say that, everyone thinks of the Big Apple City. That's not the case.

Let's take a foreign example. My ancestors are from Hanover and Baden. Are they from the cities of Hanover and Baden or Kingdom or Duchy?

Kimberly Powell has a great list of place names where your ancestor likely came from the state or county rather than a city with this name. Here are just a few:

  • Bern, Switzerland

  • Brandenburg, Prussia

  • Carmarthen, Wales

  • Cork, Ireland

  • Genoa, Italy

  • Granada, Spain

  • Kassel, Germany

Watch this video to hear this discussion in its entirety.

Multiple Places With the Same Name

What is more frustrating than discovering the name of the city you're ancestors lived only to discover that you can't figure out in which state that city is located?

Did you know that throughout the United States, there are 288 Fairview and 256 Midways populated places? Wouldn't it be nice if our ancestors specifically said Fairview, Harrodsburg, Kentucky?

Ancestors Are From a Large City

Ancestors who lived in densely populated areas can be extremely confusing. When people ask where I'm from, I say, "Houston."

  • If a person is from Houston, they'll ask, "Really, what part?"

  • I respond, "Sugarland."

  • If they're familiar with Sugarland, then I will narrow down that city even further by naming a high school or neighborhood as landmarks.

When your ancestors lived in a big city (or near a big city), they did something similar to what you just read. If they're from London or their small village was near London, they will often reference that location as their place of origin even though they could be from Ely, Cambridgeshire, England, or Covent Garden

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Geographical Names That Are Not Towns

When people asked about the places I've lived, I will often include the short time period I lived in Upstate New York. I learned that if you say you're from New York you have to say Upstate or everyone will think you were from New York City. It's as if New York City is the only part of the state. When in fact, the majority of New York state.

There really isn't a map of "Upstate New York." You just have to know that Upstate is everything other than the island. Thus, now we have a problem.

Do you know where I lived in Upstate New York?

Therein lies the problem with some of our ancestors when they say where they were from. As highlighted in this article, when an ancestor says they're from the Rhineland, Franconia, Piedmont, Lombardy, or Brittany it's much like saying I lived in Upstate New York.

Finding these regional designations can be very difficult on a map. And even if you could find it on a map, the area was so large that you can't necessarily isolate where your ancestor lived.

If you are struggling to locate your ancestor's homeland, tap into the experienced genealogists at Legacy Tree Genealogists. and tell them Devon Noel Lee referred you.

Place Names Have Changed

Some name changes are small, such as Charles Town becoming Charleston. In contrast, other changes are quite significant. Often, the name changes happen when political turnover happens.

For instance:

  • New Granada → Colombia

  • St. Petersburg → Leningrad → St. Petersburg

  • Breslau (Germany) → Wroclaw (Poland)

  • Memel (Prussia) → Klaipedia (Lithuania)

Some cities changed their name to reflect social sentiments at the time. A few Canadian and American cities named Berlin changed their names to something else following WWII.

In other situations, population growth or decline can cause city and county names to change.

Wikipedia has a list of renamed places in the US. Clicking through to the new place name could reveal why those names changed.

Boundary Changes

Counties, cities, and countries often have boundary changes, and with that name changes. Some of my ancestors settled in Ontario, which has had the name of Upper Canada, Canada West, and Canada as the country destination.

Some other ancestors originated from the Kingdom of Hanover and the Duchy of Baden. Although Germany did not form until 1871, many researchers add "Deutschland" to these place names.

Whenever possible, we should reflect on the political designations of the time. This is why I feel for those who have ancestors from Poland, which is a difficult place to research due to its frequent boundary changes.

10 Reasons Ancestral Hometowns are hard to find
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Place Names in Abbreviations Confuse Many Genealogists

With modern genealogy databases, we no longer need to use abbreviations when recording a place name. However, many documents and family histories that we consult use abbreviations extensively. Often the document creator used abbreviations either to conserve space while typesetting a publication. In other instances, the recorder was lazy.

No matter the reason, be careful with abbreviations. You do not want to waste searching in Alaska rather than Alabama when an entry says your ancestor lived in Ala.

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Tips For Researching Your Ancestor's Place Names

In GI Joe, a beloved cartoon from my childhood, we are taught, "Knowing is half the battle." When we conduct locality research, we need to keep a few things in mind.

  • Be aware of the possibility of name changes.

  • Consult a map, a gazetteer, historical dictionary, or encyclopedia to discover the names of places and how those names changed.

  • Use the place names of the time, not the modern equivalent.

  • Record place names from smallest to largest.

  • Consider using lat/long coordinates once you discover a location.

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