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I understand that a pre-Independence place name will be different than a post-Independence place name (e.g., "Colony of Virginia, Royal Colony of Great Britain" & "Virginia" ... or perhaps "Commonwealth of Virginia") but I'm not sure when to change over. Do I use the date 4 Jul 1776 (when America declared its Independence) or the date 12 May 1784 when Great Britain recognized America's independence ending its claim? Or perhaps some other date?

Is there a standard?

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  • What software are you using? I think the software that I use checks this for me.
    – shoover
    Apr 16, 2023 at 22:29
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    I've been dealing with a similar issue a lot. Many of my relatives were born or died in locations in Russian Empire or Austria-Hungary or other Eastern Europe that changed hands/names many times in recent history. I assume that whatever I write down, may not always be read later by someone familiar with the detaila of local history. So i try to write somwthing like "Dnipro, called at the time Yekaterinoslav, also formerly called Dnepropetrovsk". In your example, between 1776 and 1783, I might write "Commonwealth of Virginia, also called at the time Colony of Virginia, Btitish North America". Apr 19, 2023 at 0:50
  • Your suggestion, Dimitri, regarding my original question seems to cover all the bases. As for your issue, I feel your pain. Besides the US Independence change-over place-names, I'm also dealing with the US Territorial evolution place-name changes. Dates are not an issue, but what area each Territory consisted of at any point in time is. Some Territories consisted of a modern-day state or states in their entirety and some consisted of parts of states.
    – Marshall
    Apr 20, 2023 at 1:26
  • For anyone interested in my previous comment regarding US Territories, the maps and timelines at digital.newberry.org/ahcb are a big help.
    – Marshall
    Apr 21, 2023 at 2:16
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    The proper name of the state/country at the time of the event is not nearly as important as being able to find the event location on a map, and to know where to look for records. For the USA, I usually omit the country, anyone looking at my tree should know the 50 states. This applies to my colonial ancestors as well.
    – Mattman944
    Apr 21, 2023 at 15:41

2 Answers 2

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I have no idea if there is a standard about when to use "USA" (or expansion thereof) - if there is, I suspect it's fairly localised. That means, I believe, that I have to fall back on logic - perilous!

I don't believe that recognition of independence by Great Britain should be relevant - after all, the danger (in general) is that recognition is not granted. In practical terms, the "colonies" are operating independently before 1784 and GB's recognition, so genealogical sources will be created by the "colonists" on their terms, using their names, and stuff will be filed by those names, i.e. recognition is not relevant, internal usage is. (Of course, if the whole thing had collapsed, it might be a different story, e.g. a potential counterargument to internal usage: does anyone use "CSA"?)

So far as I can see, the answer is given on the Constitution Daily Blog for 9 September 2022:

On September 9, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted a new name for what had been called the "United Colonies".

Trying to summarise (in case of link rot), the sequence of events is something like:

  • In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence started with the following sentence: “A Declaration of the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress assembled.” This apparently makes him first to come up with the USA name.
  • However, the final version of the Declaration starts with the date July 4, 1776 and the following statement: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Notice the capitalisation. "Thirteen united States" is a description, not a name.
  • The final paragraph includes the text (again note capitalisation) "these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States" - this makes "United Colonies" the name and lines up with previous use of the name "United Colonies".
  • In case you think the capitalisation argument is irrelevant pedantry, it appears that Congress agrees with me because on 9 September 1776, Congrees passed various resolutions, the fifth of which reads:

“That in all continental commissions, and other instruments, where, heretofore, the words ‘United Colonies’ have been used, the stile be altered for the future to the “United States.”

Having said all that, apparently the words "United States of America" appeared in the first draft of the Articles of Confederation on July 8, 1776, as it was submitted to Congress. But the Articles weren’t ratified by the states until March 1781.

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  • I'm writing software which will assign these place names. Perhaps the best thing to do is allow the user to select the change-over date.
    – Marshall
    Apr 17, 2023 at 22:17
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I think it's important to bear in mind that there are multiple reasons for distinguishing historic vs. contemporary place names, including (but not limited to), (a) proper identification of record repositories, and (b) pedantry. The locations and boundaries of the original 13 colonies didn't change pre- and post-independence, so I would therefore place the precise date of transition from "British America" (or whatever) to "USA" in category (b). July 4, 1776 works for me as well as any other.

The creation of new states, either from existing states (e.g., West Virginia, Maine) or from territories, are a different story, and in those cases, the distinction is important. Also, the boundaries of counties, etc. in many U.S. states, have shifted or been reduced considerably over time, which is an important factor in tracking down records - historical records are more likely to be located in the courthouse of the historic place than the contemporary place.

Another example is the historic counties of Wales vs. the contemporary political divisions. It may be important to distinguish the historic location from the current (although many, if not most historical records are consolidated at the National Library of Wales).

There are numerous other examples - much of present-day Poland has in the past been been part of either Russia or Germany, so for some towns, the location of records can depend on the specific historical period in question.

I identify place names as:

<historic> (now <contemporary>)

at whatever grain is appropriate, whether or not record repository location is a factor. But unless record location is a factor, I don't get too concerned about the precise transition date, I just pick one that's reasonable and be consistent about it.

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