Looking at place names

he clipper ship Cairngorm under full sailIf you’re like me, you want to know more about your ancestors than just when they lived and who their parents were. You want a picture of who they were, what was important to them, and what they hoped to accomplish in life. In other words, you want a picture of them as people. Unfortunately, vital records don’t necessarily tell you that much about your ancestors’ day to day lives, at least not directly. But they do offer you a number of clues, the most obvious of which is where they lived. If you know that a person lived in the Bronx (in New York) or London, rather than a fishing village in Scotland, or in rural Idaho, you already know quite a bit. Pay attention to the place names in your records and when your ancestors lived there. It’s easy to forget that places change over time, and what you think of when you see the words London, England may or may not match up well with the city in which you ancestor lived.

Fortunately, there are tools available that can help. I’ll use my second great grandfather John Woodhouse as an example. For some time, I thought he was born in Adwick Le Street, Yorkshire, England. He was christened there, and lived there for a time, but other records show that he was probably born in Campsall. What can we say about these places? After doing some Google  searches, the search key historic place names brought up A Vision of Britain Through Time, a web site I find tremendously useful, given that so many of my ancestors either came from Great Britain in the nineteenth century or later, or lived in colonial America. If your ancestors come from elsewhere, you will need to consult other resources. Don’t forget print publications and, of course, Wikipedia. You may not want to cite it as a primary source of information, but it’s a great place to start when what you want is general information, or an overview of a particular topic.

To return to John Woodhouse, I typed “Campsall” into the search box and found a map and some basic information about the township, including the following quote from John Marius Wilson, Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-1872):

CAMPSALL, a township, a parish, and a subdistrict in Doncaster district, W. R. Yorkshire. The township adjoins the Doncaster and Wakefield railway, 1½ mile W of Askern station, and 7½ N by W of Doncaster; and includes the hamlet of Barnsdale. Acres, 1,470. Real property, £2,480. Pop., 349. Houses, 64. The parish contains also the townships of Askern, Norton, Fenwick, Moss, and part of Sutton; and its Post Town is Askern under Doncaster. Acres, 9,390. Real property, with the rest of Sutton, £14,816….

John Woodhouse did not live there in 1870, he left for the United States in 1851, but that is close enough in time to give a pretty good picture of where he lived. In addition, it explains why certain records list John Woodhouse’s place of birth a Doncaster and others do not. Even more, I’ve seen the name Chipping Norton associated with his father Charles Woodhouse. It turns out that there is a Norton in the district of Doncaster, too. Or at least that’s what I thought. Returning to the main page of A Vision of Britain and typing “chipping norton” into the search box, I found a rather different place, this time in Oxfordshire. Included was the following excerpt from John Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles (1887):

Chipping Norton, mun. bor., township, and par. with ry. sta., NW. Oxfordshire, 12 miles SW. of Banbury and 89 miles NW. of London — par., 4872 ac., pop. 4607; township and bor., pop. 4167; P.O., T.O., 2 Banks, 1 newspaper. Market-day, WednesdayChipping Norton Junction, ry. sta., is 5 miles SW. of Chipping Norton.

A much bigger, and different, place! With a railway station and two banks, it is quite likely that Chipping Norton had an industrial base, and may have been a good place to seek employment. Of course, we should not neglect the possibility of error here. It is possible that someone mistakenly wrote down Chipping Norton when, in fact, they should have simply written Norton. This is something I need to investigate further. As a general rule, if your source of information is a secondary or tertiary source such as a census, this type of error is more likely, particularly if the record was made in the United States by someone unfamiliar with the geography of Britain. But it’s not impossible, Charles Woodhouse and his son were both tailors, and it is entirely possible that they may have sought work in a larger town. Incidentally, I know he was a tailor because he was recorded as such on the ship’s register when they emigrated to the United States. Almost all of us here in the States have ancestors that came here from somewhere else, and if they came by ship, you may be able to find the ship’s register. This may not be the most obvious source of information such as occupation but, when you think about it, a journey by sea is was not a small undertaking, and knowing who on board is tailor or an ironsmith or a doctor could be very useful. As it happens, John Woodhouse records in his journal that he earned extra money by doing tailoring work for the officers, which is good because the journey cost him most of what he had.

This is all well and good, but how do you go about finding place names in the first place? Vital records such as birth and death certificates will often tell you where people lived when they were born and when they died. If you cannot find them (or if they aren’t available), you can often look at parish registries, particularly for baptism or christening dates and locations. How easily you can find records like this depends on when and where your ancestors lived. For example, vital records were maintained in New England back into colonial times, so if you have roots in New England, you are fortunate. In other states, the systematic maintenance of birth and death certificates didn’t come until later (the exact time varying from state to state). If your ancestors lived in another country, then parish records or other types of records may be available (and they may or may not be online). Another thing to keep in mind is that different religious groups have different traditions regarding maintaining records. One that may not be obvious is that Quaker meetings maintain minutes, often in considerable detail, and scanned images of these records are starting to become available online. I actually did not know I had Quaker ancestors until searches at Ancestry.com started to turn up Quaker meeting minutes, so don’t assume that you have no Quaker ancestors simply because you don’t know about it. Probably the religious group in America most famous for maintaining records is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon church. If you haven’t looked at FamilySearch.org, you should It is the genealogy site created by the LDS (or Mormon) church, and you don’t need to belong to the church to get an account. If you have Mormon ancestors, you’ll definitely want to look at this resource, and if you don’t it’s still worth a look. That being said, I should note that documentation on this site is not always what it could be, and alternative data is not always recorded when it should be, so you’ll want to check your sources. This is really true of any source of compiled information.

Okay, that’s birth and death. What about the time in between? If your ancestors lived at a place and time where census records were maintained, you’re in luck. Census records will  tell you where your ancestors lived when the census was taken, typically every ten years. You may find that they stayed in the same place year after year, or that they moved more frequently. A word of warning, though: vital dates recorded in a census are often based on memory, perhaps well after the fact, so you should look for better information sources such as birth certificates, parish registries, family bibles for the same information. But if you want to know where your ancestors lived and when they moved from one place to another, census records can be very useful. Finally, there are deeds and land grants. Any time someone acquires land, whether through purchase, inheritance or other means such as land bounty, there will be a record. And because land is so valuable, these records tend to be very reliable and less error prone than, say census records.

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