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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  3/2/2005

Where Is That?

Anyone who subscribes to virtually any genealogy mailing list has heard the question.

Does anyone know where X is?

In what county is X?

How do I find X?

While sometimes the answer is obvious or as simple as a five-second lookup, there are times when finding the location defies virtually every attempt. And yet finding many genealogical records requires a fairly specific knowledge of place. There are some steps that most genealogists take in locating that hard to find village in their family's past. This week we take a look at some websites and techniques for locating a location that cannot be located.

United States Geological Survey Geographic Names Information Server

This site searches a database of hundreds of thousands of place names across the United States. Not all of these locations are populated places, however. Mountains, creeks, churches, cemeteries, rivers, and other types of items are included. I have even found a place classified as a "post office" with the notation that it was "historical." (It was Plumb, Oklahoma, for those who are interested.) The USGS GNIS site provides the location of the feature, including the state, county, longitude, latitude, and additional details and links to maps. It is worth a look even for those places that have already been located.

Leave the feature type blank. The location for which you are searching may never have been a populated place and today may not even exist. Overly specific searches may cause the desired results to be filtered out of your search. Choose only [populated place] in the drop-down menu for feature type, when you are absolutely certain the item for which you are looking is a populated place.

An 1895 obituary indicated my aunt lived in Plumb, Oklahoma. I began with a search for a populated place at the USGS GNIS with no success. When the feature type was set to all (which is done by choosing the "blank”--the first choice on the drop down menu after the words "Feature Type"), the reference to a post office named Plumb in Payne County, Oklahoma, was located. The other reference to Plumb in Oklahoma was to a creek. I decided the post office reference was the most likely match and started my search there. Sure enough, I found my aunt in the 1900 census for Payne County, Oklahoma.

Be Partial to Wild Searches
The USGS GNIS site allows for partial searches (string-based searches) when the complete name is not known. Entering in the letters "Bla" will bring up results such as:

  • Blairstown
  • Blackville
  • Blandinsville
  • and other similar matches

Wildcards are also allowed and are particularly helpful when the name of the feature is only partially known. If an obituary is partially unreadable, the town may appear to be Ba---ville. This search can be entered in the USGS site as "Ba%ville" and will return matches such as:

  • Bartlesville
  • Babbitville
  • Bartonville
  • etc.

This more specific search eliminates those entries that do not end in "ville.â"

The U.S. County/Town Database at RootsWeb

This site provides a database of towns throughout the United States and the counties in which they are located. Good to use when there's little doubt the name of the town is correct. It is not necessary to enter the complete name of the town on this site as string based searches as also performed here. Wildcard operators are not allowed. A search for the letters "ca" in Iowa, resulted in several results, including:

  • Camanche
  • Cambria
  • Cambridge
  • Cameron
  • etc.

The name of the state is optional, even if just the first two letters of the town are entered (or at least it worked at the time this column was written!).

The 1895 U.S. Atlas

Pam Rietsch has created a site that has actual images from the 1895 U.S. atlas along with a state-by-state index. This is another excellent resource for locating small villages and towns that today do not even exist. The scans here are high quality scans and will print quite nicely.

Even if you know where the location is, a map of the area from this time period may still be helpful. The county map for where I live reminded me of how easily town names can confuse if one is not careful and if sufficient detail is not provided. I live close to Ontario and Utah and yet live east of the Mississippi River and south of Lake Michigan.

Some researchers tend to overlook print materials. This is a huge mistake. Not everything the genealogist needs is available online with a few clicks of the mouse.

For many states, books of place names have been printed, frequently by a state historical organization or university press. Many times these books contain a snippet of historical information about each place, more than will be listed on the USGS site. Your local library may have a book of place names for your state or county (county histories are another excellent place to obtain information on these small places once the county is known) or may be able to get them on interlibrary loan.

A Google search for "yourstate" place names may also locate references to such printed materials. Searches of online library card catalogs could also be conducted to find these published materials. Libdex ( has links to thousands of online library card catalogs to assist you in locating book references.

Do I Have the Name Right?
Sometimes the place cannot be located because we do not have the location correct. Was the name spelled incorrectly? Are there other ways to interpret the handwriting? Was the person who gave the information confused or misinformed? Is the state correct?

We have discussed hearing and pronunciation problems in earlier columns:

"Do You Ear What I Ear?" (

Consider a Posting to a Message Board
After you've done some preliminary checking on your own using the sites referenced today, if you are relatively certain of the state or county, consider posting a query to the appropriate state or county message board or mailing list There may be a list member who is aware of information or references that cannot be located with online searches.

Can I Google It?
Google is an excellent search tool, but must be used with thought and was not created to solve every genealogy problem. I used Google to try and find a village that I already had located: Breckendridge, Illinois.

Genealogists love Google because it locates many things, but sometimes that is the problem: it locates too many things. My search for "breckenridge Illinois" at could easily have left me more confused than I already was. Note: this Google search was conducted on 23 February, results obtained when this column goes live may be different.

I already knew where the Breckenridge, Illinois, I was looking for was located. Because of this, I was better able to see that I must be careful in using Google's results to try and initially locate a very small place or one that no longer exists. In the first two pages of search results, there was only one containing a reference for the "right" Breckenridge.

Google's first results were for maps at Yahoo!, Google, and MapQuest. Maps at Yahoo! and Google both brought up results near Springfield, Illinois, nearly 100 miles from the former hamlet I was trying to reference. MapQuest was the only one that found two references to Breckenridge, Illinois (the one near Springfield and the other one in Hancock County). This second location was the one I was actually looking for.

Based upon my little test, I generally would use Google to search for references to the location after the county had been located. Then the county could be entered as an additional search term. When I searched Google for "Breckenridge Hancock Illinois" some erroneous results were still received, but the number that appeared to reference the location in Hancock County were significantly higher than before. This would also be an excellent way to locate more information about the location. In fact, in the first twenty hits, two genealogy websites were located containing a person who had a vital event in the village. I might have to do some more experimenting.

Finding a place where your ancestor lived may lead you to more records. Consider searching the sites mentioned in this column, contemplate the accuracy of the place name, and remember that the reference you need may only be available on paper between two hard covers.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

 Used by the author on his website with permission       

Other Genealogy Articles by Michael John Neill