How to Standardize Your Geographic Locations

You’ve been working on your family history for years and have gathered a lot of information.

You keep careful notes and are consistent in putting down full bibliographic citations so that others may quickly know where you found each of your facts.

But—how are you adding the places of birth, marriage or death for your ancestors?

Photo showing the view of Elm Street in Manchester, New Hampshire, looking south
Photo: View of Elm Street in Manchester, New Hampshire, looking south. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s a tip: write out the complete geographic location for each event.

Instead of writing:
Manchester, NH

You want to render it as:
Manchester, Hillsborough, New Hampshire, United States

Also acceptable:
Manchester, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, United States

Enter Last Name

What you want to avoid are abbreviations, because they can often be misunderstood.

For example: which state has the abbreviation AR?
Is that Arizona? Arkansas? No, it can’t be Arkansas—isn’t that AK?

Actually, Arizona is AZ, Arkansas is AR and Alaska is AK.

It’s easy to know if you use those geo location abbreviations often, but when we don’t we often have to look the abbreviation up to get it right.

Over the history of the United States, abbreviations have not always been consistent. People used any abbreviation that seemed correct to them. Newspapers often used an unconventional abbreviation, such as Con for Connecticut. We’re not accustomed to that today—but it must have been acceptable over a century ago.

The accepted style for writing geographic locations is to not use abbreviations and to include the name of the county and of the country. Use the corresponding geographical jurisdictions when documenting places in other countries.

You never want to simply enter the name of the town.

For example, don’t just use: Haverhill.

You understand where that is.
Many of your family lived there—but will other relatives know where that is?
What if your relative now lives across the country—will they recognize where Haverhill is?

Is that Haverhill, Essex, Massachusetts, United States—or, not far away, Haverhill, Grafton, New Hampshire, United States?

Why include the name of the country?
Now that genealogy has gone global, it is customary to include the name of the country to make the entries more precise.

When genealogists are less familiar with the geography, having it spelled out is helpful.

For example:
Sydney (or)
Sydney, Cumberland, New South Wales

Most of us would instantly recognize this is in Australia, but could it be misunderstood as somehow being part of Wales?

Enter it as:
Sydney, Cumberland, New South Wales, Australia—then there is no misunderstanding.

Make your family history crystal clear.

Use the town, county, state and country to describe all of the localities in your family history.

Let’s be consistent in all of our records and leave a clear record that everyone will easily understand.

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3 thoughts on “How to Standardize Your Geographic Locations

  1. Yes, but what about when county (or state) lines change over the years? Should I record my wife’s great-grandmother as being born in “Kemp, Bryan, Oklahoma, USA” (which is what it is called today) or “Kemp, Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory, USA” (as it was called in 1894).

    Personally, I usually use the current names – but I can see the logic in using the original names.

  2. I use the current geographic designation to make it easier for others to understand where the event took place. In my sourcing I include the exact citations with links to newspaper articles in GenealogyBank, census pages, birth certificates, etc. That way the researcher can quickly see how the location was designated over the life of an individual. So many times we have examples of individuals/families that lived on the same farm over 200 years – but the name of the county, town or even the country changed during those centuries. By standarizing the locations they can be quickly understood by today’s reader – and by documenting each person the precision of the geographical jurisdictions are clearly understood.

  3. As counties are sub-divided, it is good to know the name of the county at the time of the event so that a genealogist will be able to go to the right courthouse to do further research.

    When a city and county in a state have the same name, add the word city or county to the name to avoid confusion, e.g. Baltimore city is not a part of Baltimore county.

    Always ask yourself, “What government entity has the records?”

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