What to do when the town name is wrong?

Wrong Town Name in Genealogy

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 was not even established till a good 20 years or so after their birth?

When researching your family history, you will run into errors and you have to go back into the sources of those facts in order to root out the problem before you can develop a strategy for solving it.

Where was the birthplace listed?

If a birthplace was listed on an online tree, recognize that the information in an online tree is not as reliable as a quality document.

If the birthplace was written on a document created after the individual’s birth, you have to evaluate the evidence by determining (if possible) who the informant was and if they would have witnessed the birth.

If you have a birth register or birth certificate, then you have to determine why the name on the document is different than what you thought it should be.

In short, you have to evaluate the source of the birthplace before moving forward.

If the birthplace was on a contemporary record ~

If the birthplace was written on a document contemporary to the birth of the ancestor, you have to study the history of the locality to clarify why you know it wasn’t established until long after the date of the record creation. Let the history be your guide.

If the birthplace was on a record created by the ancestor you’re researching, but not the birth record ~

If the individual identified their birthplace as being a town that wasn’t established until long after their birth, then history again should be your guide. Review the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to determine potential clues as to why the ancestor may have incorrectly identified their birthplace. Perhaps they used the modern name in place of the historic name. Perhaps they used the name that the area was known as locally before it was established officially. And perhaps your ancestor was lying. You’ll have to evaluable the records you’ve gathered and the history of place names to make a determination.

If the birthplace was on a record, created on behalf of the ancestor ~

If a birthplace was identified on a record that was not created by an ancestor, such as an obituary, a newspaper article, or a death record, then the chances increase that the name used was a mistake. It could also have been the modern name for a historic place and thus accurate, just different. Again, you’ll have to evaluate the information on the documents, examine historic names, and make a determination of what the name of the original birthplace of your ancestor might have been.

What to do about errors?

I’m of the opinion that you should use the name at the time an event happened. This helps you not only attempt to locate where records were kept, but also view your ancestor 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
Ontario 1867–present

Thus, in my databases, I use Upper Canada when events occurred in the area, which became Lincoln County, Ontario, Canada, happened between 1794 – 1841.

I can’t change the trees of others and don’t expend any efforts trying to convert people to the ‘right place.’ I attempt to be as accurate as possible so that when I write my ancestor’s story, I am not missing important details.

There are some who may say that I’m still falling short of the mark, but I do the best I can and you should too.

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