Sharon Leslie Howell | Feb 8, 2019

Search all Jurisdictions and Find More Records – Part 2

Laurie Werner Castillo’s 2018 RootsTech presentation “Search all Jurisdictions and Find More Records” is an eye-opening examination of jurisdictions of all types and their significance for finding records. This is the second article in a 3-part series. Part 1 of this series identifies types of jurisdictions and their significance. This article will cover jurisdictional changes and how to track changes historically, so you will have more places to look for records.  

Boundary changes

The most obvious changes in jurisdictions are boundary changes. Before July 4, 1776, for instance, the United States didn’t exist. Jurisdictions recording birth records before that time, when you stop to think about it, might be in a different country! Boundary changes after that can be traced as states are formed out of territories or from adjacent states, or when boundaries between states are realigned by cooperative agreements. But this is in no way consistent.  Some boundaries are mapped incorrectly and stay that way, putting arbitrary alignments in place that topographically (and even jurisdictionally) don’t make sense. Residents also sometimes deliberately went far afield to satisfy legal and ecclesiastical preferences.   

Topographic changes

Topographically, things may have been different at different times. There are natural disasters like fires, floods, and earthquakes that precipitate jurisdictional changes and the population movements and record relocations. Coastal areas erode and shift boundaries inland or move towns or courthouses to higher ground or further along a coastline, for instance. 

The incursion of railroads and the building of highways and bridges also shifts jurisdictions and migration patterns. A mine that's no longer in use or a drought may cause a settlement to become a ghost town, and when a place becomes extinct, then you have to find out what happened to the records.  

The building of dams and reservoirs might attract settlers who suddenly have an abundance of water, while at the same time forcing a cemetery to relocate or split into two locations that are no longer near each other.  A river that forms the border between jurisdictions may have changed course over time, which may have resulted in the moving of jurisdictional boundaries and administrative responsibilities.  

Name changes

According to Castillo, there are “name changes a plenty.” Reasons are many and varied. A name change may have been an attempt to honor someone or a way to gain political favor, or to disassociate with a “career scoundrel,” or to romanticize a location to encourage settlement. A location may have been named after the first settler and then changed sometime after with the influx of new settlers.

After wars, names are sometimes replaced to follow political leanings. Places may change names to highlight a topographic feature that is now in adjacent states that have retained the same name, which makes finding records confusing and muddled.   

Duplication of names is also confusingly common. Castillo reports that “there are 22 same-name counties that are side-by-side in the United States that are across state boundaries from each other!” To sort through the changes, you’ll need to investigate the history where your ancestors lived and follow boundary and name changes and think about the human element.

Sources for historical records

You will find some excellent sources to help you trace the history of places and jurisdictional changes. The process will be enriching and instructive as you move backward in time. Here are a few from Castillo’s presentation:

Map of the US.org is a site that has historical atlases and maps of the U.S. and individual states. Maps are animated and interactive, so you can see changes over time. Use the links from years to see intervals when new maps were created.

Atlas of Historical County Boundaries (The Newberry Library) is one of the best places to find reference material on individual county chronologies. Charts and lists show territory lost or gained, name changes, and other helpful information.

Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Census, 1790-1920 is a published volume of all US county boundaries for every census year. You are likely to find the book in a public or institutional library. References to the book are found in the Family History Library Catalog at FamilySearch. You can also find reference holdings in other possible locations using WorldCat, the world’s largest online library catalog.

U.S. Geographical Survey (USGS) oversees several projects—one of them is the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), which is the is the official repository of domestic geographic names information. GNIS is where you would look for names and name changes for census-designated places.

Finding direction

The key is to figure out enough about where your ancestors were at a specific time and place and what was happening that impacted their lives. Once you know something about the historical narrative of the time and place, you’ll be ready for a strategy for searching and keeping your findings organized. That will be covered in part 3 of this series.

Sharon Leslie Howell

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