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A Place is not Just a Place

By Daniel Hubbard | January 5, 2014

One of the thoughts that occurs to me regularly is how tricky the word “place” can be. We use it without really thinking about what lies underneath. It seems like such a simple concept. I’m in one place as I write. You are in another as you read. Those places have names. They have latitudes and they have longitudes. Surely those things specify a place with all the precision that one could possibly want. Nevertheless, I don’t think that they do.

I ponder this every time that I think about how I work and how I organize. It seems to me that we can mean at least three things when we use the word “place.” We think of a place as having some important properties. A place generally has a name. It can be found at a specific location. In genealogy we are well aware that the place in question will also sit somewhere within a jurisdictional hierarchy. The trouble is, none of those ways of thinking about places really work.

The Concept of Place

At least when I think of a place with genealogy in mind, what I think of is the smallest locality that makes sense. Addresses are usually unknown or, far enough back, didn’t even exist. What that smallest locality would be depends on the region. It might be a town, township or townland. It might be a parish, county or hundred. Perhaps the best way to think about it is that it is as the most specific that anyone is likely to be when asked “Where are you from?” If you could go back in time and ask you ancestors that question, the answer would be the name that corresponds to the place.

So isn’t knowing the name the same as knowing the place? How would your ancestor that was born in New Amsterdam and died in New York in the house of his birth answer that question? If an ancestor born in Poontoosuc answered that question with “Pittsfield,” would you tell her that she was wrong just because the name had changed?

Places change name all the time yet we still think of them as the same place. Our concept of place may include the place’s name but when push comes to shove, the concept of place goes beyond the name. When recording a place, we have little choice but to record the name and yet multiple names may all indicate the same place in ways that won’t always be clear to the reader or to the software where we make our record.

Jurisdictional Place

When genealogists write down the name of a place, we should write down the whole jurisdictional path from village to nation. To one way of thinking, a different path means a different place. My database records a new place if the chain of jurisdictions changes.

Recording that hierarchy is important, it helps us to avoid ambiguities. Confusing Manhattan in New York with Manhattan in Kansas would not be good. Recording that chain also helps us to know where records might be located because each level of the hierarchy has the potential to create useful records. Do those changes in jurisdiction really warrant declaring a place to be different from an earlier or later place with the same name and in the same physical location? Continuity of everything but jurisdiction argues against that. Whatever a place is, it is not something that changes completely with a change to a county boundary.

Physical Place

What about physical location? Isn’t that something that can be used to say that this is one place and that is another? After all, evenĀ  earthquakes only change physical locations by a few feet. With one latitude measurement and one longitude measurement a place ought to be defined. Unfortunately, no.

Niobara, Nebraska- 1881, flooding forced the entire town to be moved to higher ground southwest of its original site. 1974, rising groundwater levels forced the town to be moved a second time to its third and present location.

Osborn, Ohio- 1921, flooding problems that reached their worst in the Great Dayton Flood led to the construction of the Huffman Dam. The town of Osborn and the railroad that served it were moved 2 miles to higher ground next to Fairfield, Ohio to make way for the dam. Houses were loaded onto trucks and hauled to the new location. Twenty-nine years later the town ceased to exist as such when it merged with Fairfield to form the city of Fairborn.

Shawneetown, Illinois- 1937, moved three miles after the Great Ohio River Flood.

Valdez, Alaska- 1967, town moved 4 miles to higher ground after the magnitude 9.2 earthquake and tsunamis of 1964.

English, Indiana- 1990, floods forced the town to move to higher ground.

Pattonsburg, Missouri- 1993, the Grand River reached 12 feet above flood stage. The town was moved to higher ground to the north.

Even as I write, the city of Kiruna, Sweden with 18,000 residents is in the process of being moved two miles because mining is producing underground cracks that threaten the city were the miners themselves live. Years from now, when the process is finished and the fissures have reached the old location, the city will still be Kiruna. It just won’t be where it used to be.

Places move and yet they are still the same place. The people are the same. The government is the same. Even the homes may be the same but the position on the map is different. It is a strange realization that a “place” can move to a different “place” and yet still be the same “place.”

What is a Place?

If a place isn’t encapsulated by its name, its jurisdictions or even its physical location, then how do we record it? A place is all those things and yet not really any of them. We can only say what we mean by a place by putting together the history of its name changes, jurisdiction changes and even location changes. In principle, it is only that whole collection of history that can indicate that two people born a century apart in places with different names, and even in different states were, in fact, born not in two different places but in the very same place.

If a place isn’t encapsulated by its name, its jurisdictions or even its physical location, then what is it? It is certainly far more complicated than one would naively expect. As near as I can figure, a place is defined by our feeling of continuity. Enough continuity and it is the same place. Not enough continuity and we decide that it is a different place.

A place is perhaps a member of that category of things that are answers to the question “Where are you from?” that are interconnected by statements like “Oh, that’s really the same place.”

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