Gazetters Help Find Ancestors

by Bob Brooke

With changes times came changing names for many towns and counties across the U.S. as progress took its toll. How can a genealogist find a town where an ancestor was born if it no longer exists -- or at least not under its original name? The answer is simple -- by using a gazetteer.

A gazetteer, unlike an atlas which is a collection of maps, is a geographical dictionary which lists features such as populated places, mountains, marshes, schools, cemeteries, administrative areas, undersea features, etc. To assist in locating the feature on a map, many provide geographic coordinates in latitude and longitude. Some include facts about each feature, such as population, description, local history, as well as biographical information about previous inhabitants of a place.

As time progressed, original Indian names of places were shortened or eliminated. Rahway, New Jersey, for instance, can be found as Rahawackbacka, Rahawack, Rawake, Roway, Raway, and finally Rahway. A town, originally called Milltown after a mill located there, might have been changed to Madison, to honor an early president. New York City has been named Manhatta, New Amsterdam, Gotham, and New-York. The United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) is the official United States body created in 1890 to provide for uniform usage of geographic names throughout the Federal Government.

Jedediah Morse published the first American Gazetteer, featuring information not only on the North American continent, but its surrounding islands in 1797. It obviously generated a demand for a shorter and less expensive version known as An Abridgement of the American Gazetteer, a 388-page edition published in Boston in 1798.

To use a gazetteer successfully in finding an ancestor, a genealogist must know the four basic elements of identification--name, date, event, and place. If a researcher can place a person with a specific name performing a specific task in a specific place at a specific time, he or she has the basics for identifying that man, woman, or child as a unique individual. A person's name is the starting point, since it's often known. A genealogist can usually do a fair job of estimating ages based on the events known. In fact, many records, like census schedules, will even give a good estimate of a person's age. And of course, that same record ties the person's name to a specific date and event in a specific place.

While it may sound neat and tidy for that record, what if that record refers to another event in another location? A census record says a person was born in Newburg. A passenger list gives the town of Green as the previous residence, and a marriage entry notes Upper Hillside as the bride's home township. That's where a gazetteer comes in handy.

Today, genealogists not only use gazetteers in print, but they also use searchable gazetteer databases on the Internet. One of the best places to begin is the U.S. Government's Geographic Names Information System(www-nmd.usgs.gov/wwwgris/grisform.html) . At its most basic, this site allows researchers to type in a name, then call up a list of the various localities in the United States that share that name. Let's say a researcher is looking for Sutter, California? The GNIS database will furnish not only the exact longitude and latitude of that town, but its location in Sutter County, just southeast of the Sutter Buttes, a geographic landmark. It will also identify the feature's "type"--city, river, mountain, building-- and cross-reference a map showing its exact location.

The obvious use is to type in the name of the town or county where an ancestor was said to reside, copy down its exact location and map reference, and look it up. This can be a major help in tracking down ancestral roots.

But there's another angle to pursue. If a family name is rare in the U.S., a researcher can type in a surname and see what localities associate with it. There may be a family cemetery, a town or hill bearing that surname. Needless to say, such a discovery could lead to a major breakthrough. There's a similar service for Canada.

The U.S. Census Bureau Gazetteer(www.census.gov/cgi-bin/gazetteer), a database maintained by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, contains information on populated (incorporated) places only. A researcher can conduct a search by place name or zip code. Each search returns the population, latitude/longitude, zip codes, and links to 1990 demographic data tables. It can also be displayed on a map, which can be zoomed in or out or downloaded.

The Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names(www.ahip.getty.edu/tgn_browser/) is a global listing of over 1 million names representing approximately 900,000 places and geographic features of the modern world. Maintained by the Getty Information Institute, it organizes hierarchically from continents at the broadest level, to nations, states, regions and cities at narrower levels. Plus, it provides latitude/longitude, vernacular and English names, and sources of information, as well as historical names and notes for most major inhabited places.

Researchers can find gazetteers in a library's reference section in the 910-919 Dewey call number area or the general collection in the 910-919 call number area or spread throughout the collection according to subject.

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