By any other name would smell as sweet;"
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene I
Only if that was true when it is comes to the names of places and people when doing genealogy research. As I posted in "When is a Wilkerson a Wilkinson?" following the possible variations in a surname can cause no end of confusion. It can get even worse when a person changes their forename like Oscar James Little AKA James Austin Little (but that is for another day and another post).
Another of the challenges faced by all family history and genealogy researchers is to accurately record where an event took place. Some people try to keep it simple by using the place name as it exists now when adding details to their family tree. However, that can create some interesting brick walls when it comes to locating some of those hard to find records. What I try to do is to record the name of the place as it was at the time.
As some of my gentle-readers may have guessed, I've been spending the past several weeks researching various lines that originally settled in what is now called the Regional Municipality of Niagara and that is where it gets interesting. For example, a place like Niagara-on-the-Lake, Regional Municipality of Niagara, Ontario, Canada also is known by the following names (years are approximate and depended on when the necessary legislation was passed and signed law):
- 1781-1788 Butlersburg, Montreal District, Province of Quebec
- 1788-1791 Butlersburg, Nassau District, Province of Quebec
- 1791-1792 Butlersburg, Nassau District, Province of Upper Canada
- 1792-1798 Newark, Home District, Province of Upper Canada
- 1798-1841 Niagara, Niagara District, Province of Upper Canada
- 1841-1851 Niagara, Niagara District, Canada West, United Province of Canada
- 1851-1867 Niagara, Lincoln County, Canada West, United Province of Canada
- 1867-1970 Niagara1, Lincoln County, Ontario, Canada
- 1970-now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Regional Municipality of Niagara, Ontario, Canada
And that is just one place!
So why is it important to know the various names of a place? When looking for land records and if you are just looking for Niagara and ignoring Newark or Nassau then you will probably miss all those critical early records. You might also ignore a key record just because the place name used is not the same name in use today.
It can get even more confusing for early records in Ontario since there were counties created in 1792 but they co-existed with the district names until about 1851 when the districts were abolished. The counties during that period were for electoral, land registration, and militia purposes. So even though Newark was in Home District in 1792 you will also find land registrations and probates listed as being in Lincoln County.
Yes it can get very confusing at times. The Archives of Ontario even has a page called "The Changing Shape of Ontario" where you can view and download maps showing the progression from districts to counties from 1788 to 1899.
So look for web sites and other resources that can help you figure out that correct name. In my case I purchased AniMap County Boundary Historical Atlas by Gold Bug for my USA and Ontario research (Ontario is only district and county borders unfortunately and not place names). I also make use of the web pages of various historical societies and even Wikipedia to give me clues and pointers. Also for the United States of America there is the online Atlas of Historical County Boundaries that is available for free. Don't forget about gazetteers to help you out in figuring out what something is called, which county or country it may be and when.
1. Niagara-on-the-Lake was the postal designation from the 1880s but it wasn't until 1970 when the Town and Township of Niagara was merged that the name became "official".