Viewer Question: What do you do when researching an ancestor, and you find his birthplace listed as a certain town that you know for a fact the town is wrong. The town by that name was not even established until a good 20 years or so after their birth?
When researching your family history, you will run into many errors, including a place name being incorrect. A good genealogist will review their sources again and examine the facts to root out the problem.
Which records identify the town in which an event took place?
As you begin to root out the problem, you should identify which records identify a town in which an event took place. In this case, the viewer is exploring birthplaces, so they should ask the following questions.
Did the birthplace appear in a family tree?
Paper trees handed down for many generations are often unreliable, especially when they are not sourced properly.
Online trees are notoriously unreliable; however, did the online tree cite a source?
Did the birthplace appear in an index for a document?
Indexes contain many errors, so attempt to locate the original record.
Did the birthplace appear in another derivative source?
Novice researchers consider derivative sources akin to secondary sources. In other words, does the information appear in a county history, newspaper article, or compiled family history? These are all derivative sources, and the reliability is suspect.
Did the birthplace appear in an original record?
Although original records are preferred over indexes or derivatives sources, you still need to evaluate the original documents.
Was the record created close to the time of the event with information provided by someone who witnessed said event?
A death record, where the informant was not present at the deceased’s birth, can be less reliable about an ancestor's birthplace.
A birth record in which the informant was present at the birth would be more reliable than the death record.
In short, you have to evaluate the source of the birthplace before determine which town name is inaccurate.
Was the record that identifies where the event happened contemporary to the said event?
Place names may change over time so that a wrong town name could be a correct name but at the wrong time period.
Poland was not always called Poland. Moravia was known as part of the Austria-Moravian, Austria-Hungarian, and Czechoslovakian countries. St. Petersburg in Russia was once called Petrograd.
Since names change, the ‘correct’ town name should appear on a record created at the time of the event. When you find a contemporary document for the event, you should use that town name to provide historical accuracy for your family tree.
Was the record that identifies where the event happened created long after the event?
If you do not have a document created at the time of the event (such as the birth), record all the town names referenced. Then, begin consulting a town’s history to determine the place name at the time of your ancestor’s birth.
Review the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to determine potential clues as to why a record about your ancestor‘s birthplace may have incorrectly identified their birthplace.
Perhaps the record included the modern name rather than the historic name.
Perhaps the town name was used locally by citizens of the area before it was established officially.
Also consider, your ancestor lied or did not know the correct location of an event.
In short, evaluate each document that specifies a location. Compare the name to a town’s history. Then decide if what the name of the original birthplace of your ancestor might have been.
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What to do when researchers use the wrong town name?
You can’t change the trees of others who use the wrong town name for genealogical events. Expend as little effort as possible trying to convert people to the ‘right place.’
Instead, become a better genealogist by using the town name at the time each event happened. This helps you not only attempt to locate where records were kept but also view your ancestors through the lens of history.
For instance, I have ancestors who lived in Ontario, Canada. Depending upon the time an event happened in any of my ancestors’ lives, they could have been the following place names without them moving:
Province of Quebec 1763–1791
Upper Canada 1791–1841
Canada West 1841–1867
In my databases, I use Upper Canada when events occurred in the area, which became Lincoln County, Ontario, Canada, which happened between 1794 and 1841.
Be as accurate as possible so that when you write your ancestor’s story, you do not overlook important details.