My standard for American place-names is "settlement, county, state, USA". I have been entering the county names with the word "County" or "Co" appended, e.g. "San Rafael, Marin Co, California, USA". I notice, however, that James Tanner omitted the "Co" in a recent post and I suddenly wondered whether I am transgressing any good practice that, from my side of the Atlantic, I've not noticed. (Rather like an American who innocently refers to "Lancashire County" - the words "shire" and "County" are synonymous) So...

Q1 Is there any reason not to use the words "County" or "Co" for some or all American county names?

Q2 Are there areas of the USA where counties do not, or did not, exist and I should use something else?

Note I don't always follow my own standard - "San Francisco, San Francisco Co., California, USA" seems just a touch pointless.

  • 1
    In the example to which you refer, James omitted San Bernardino County because the reference was to an 1852 record when there was no county of that name. Had be been citing an 1854 record, his example might have been very different.
    – Fortiter
    Sep 2 '13 at 10:52
  • Yes but ... He gave the 1852 entry as "San Bernardino, Los Angeles, California, United States (or USA whatever)". My understanding is that "Los Angeles" there refers to Los Angeles County - it is listed in "California: Individual County Chronologies" from James' link in that post. This may or may not be a good example - like SF, LA may have been its own county. Whatever the story is - I got unsure about whether including the word "County" was OK or labelled me a foreigner!
    – AdrianB38
    Sep 2 '13 at 15:39
  • Los Angeles County was created in 1850, and was then much larger than it is now, including parts of what are now Kern, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange counties. The City of San Bernardino was in Los Angeles County until 1853, and in San Bernardino County thereafter. The city of San Franciso occupies all of San Francisco County; the same is not true of Los Angeles (LA county includes a number of cities other than LA). Reference: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Angeles_County Sep 6 '13 at 0:32
  • Thanks @keith-Thompson - this reinforces my concern that "San Bernardino, Los Angeles" is ambiguous by itself. Could it mean San Bernardino, a suburb / neighbourhood in the city of Los Angeles? Or the town / city of SB in the county of LA? Without looking in a reference source, either are plausible, especially given what you say. Hence I think it a good idea to consistently include the county, where the name of the county includes the word "county" (or an abbreviation thereof).
    – AdrianB38
    Sep 6 '13 at 9:48
  • It occurs to me to say that I would name independent cities with an explicitly missing component - e.g. "Baltimore, , Maryland, USA" That way (with the double comma) you can see that the county has been omitted - though the reason for its omission could be one of several - independent cities, cities crossing several counties (e.g. NYC) or cities coterminous with their county (e.g. SF)
    – AdrianB38
    Sep 6 '13 at 9:52

Generally, you can use whatever naming practice you want to if you're working on your own. If you're cooperating with someone, it's obviously best to agree on some common standard, but that's between you and the others working on the project and nobody from the outside has any business or right to tell you what is the "right" or "wrong" way to name places.

This also applies to the decision if you want to use the current political structure or the place hierarchy at the time of the event. Decide on one approach, document it if you're working with a team, and stick to it. Both have their strength and weaknesses, so it's best to use them both in parallel where possible, but this is seldom the case. The GEDCOM data format for example doesn't have any capability of recording place hierarchy changes over time since places aren't top-level elements of it.

In the specific case of the USA, I'd keep the "County" part to distinguish place names like these from each other:

This also answers your second question: There are indeed places in the USA where counties do not exist. In particular, Washington, D.C. is not even part of any state and there are 41 independent cities which don't belong to any county.

On the other hand, there are "cities" or metropolises which are spread across multiple counties; you'll have to keep that in mind as well with whatever hierarchy you'll end up using. One example would be New York City, consisting of:

  • Bronx County, New York, USA
  • Kings County, New York, USA (Brooklyn)
  • New York County, New York, USA (Manhattan)
  • Queens County, New York, USA
  • Richmond County, New York, USA (Staten Island)

There are also places which politically belong to one county, while geographically being split between multiple of them. One example is Bothell, King County, Washington, USA which is geographically nearly halfway in Snohomish County, Washington, USA (designated in red in the picture).

enter image description here

The term "county" is used in 48 of the US states, the two exceptions being Alaska and Louisiana. Alaska's equivalents are organised boroughs (plus one unorganised borough), while Louisiana uses parishes. Federal terminology refers to Louisiana parishes, Alaskan boroughs and independent cities as "county equivalents".

  • let us continue this discussion in chat
    – user104
    Sep 2 '13 at 11:55
  • OK - setting aside the above discussion... While I had heard of independent cities, their significance as being outwith counties had escaped my notice. Wikipedia then lead me to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/County_%28United_States%29 ... OK - better try and summarise this is an proper answer. In fact, I'll edit the answer above - I think it can be done sensibly.
    – AdrianB38
    Sep 2 '13 at 15:48

Both Familysearch and Ancestry omit the word "County" from the names of places in the USA (and Canada) in most cases. This seems a reasonable approach, as the "state subdivision" is a county in most cases (and those in AK and LA are treated as county equivalents).

Many US states, especially in the west, started with a small number of large counties and these gradually got subdivided (and the process is still continuing, for example La Paz county in Arizona split from Yuma County in 1983). So, as in your example, the county at the time of the event may be different from the present-day county. I'd generally use the county as shown in the record, rather than attempt to change it to a current one.

Familysearch do often make clear when a city is independent (not within a county), as happens in a few eastern states. An example is Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland. This is important as there is sometimes a county with the same name (that covers a different area).

  • So - two different approaches. Either - Baltimore county, Maryland - Baltimore, Maryland (for the city) or - Baltimore, Maryland (for the county) - Baltimore (Independent City), Maryland And apparently FS and Ancestry tend to follow the latter style. I have to say I'm not keen on the 2nd style. It depends on you realising that the element before Maryland is a county. Most people not familiar with this idea will assume Baltimore here means the city. This also implies that the name of the city is "Baltimore (Independent City)" - but it isn't - it's Baltimore.
    – AdrianB38
    Sep 7 '13 at 16:04
  • Still - valuable to be warned about what FS and Ancestry tend to mean by these terms.
    – AdrianB38
    Sep 7 '13 at 16:06

Q1 :Is there any reason not to use the words "County" or "Co" for some or all American county names?"

My practice is to do what makes the data the least ambiguous. For instances, in counties unlike San Francisco (which is "the City and County of San Francisco" i.e. they cover the same geographical area), where you have a city name which is the same as the county name, when I have a reference to a county name without a town, I tend to spell the county name out in full.

Hampden, Hampden, Massachusetts, United States (the town)

Hampden County, Massachusetts, United States (the county)

This keeps any reference like Hampden, (blank), Massachusetts, and the county-only place reference falling together and looking like the same thing in Family Historian.

But I'm still waffling between writing "United States" or "USA" so what do I know?

Q2 Are there areas of the USA where counties do not, or did not, exist and I should use something else?

(adding information from a comment) The Wikipedia article County (United States) says:

The U.S. federal government uses the term "county equivalent" to describe non-county administrative or statistical areas that are comparable to counties. Louisiana parishes; the organized boroughs of Alaska; the District of Columbia; and the independent cities of the states of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, and Nevada are equivalent to counties for administrative purposes. Alaska's Unorganized Borough is divided into 11 census areas that are statistically equivalent to counties. As of 2013, the United States has 3,007 counties and 137 county equivalents for a total of 3,144 counties and county equivalents.

For this passage, the citation is

"County Totals Datasets: Population, Population Change and Estimated Components of Population Change: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2012". 2012 Population Estimates. United States Census Bureau, Population Division. March 2013. Retrieved April 30, 2013.

  • 1
    I'm writing "the USA" at the moment because that's the only way to make the sentences work in FH's narrative reports - compare "He lived in England" with "She lived in the USA" and you'll see that "the" needs to be attached to match the English.
    – AdrianB38
    Nov 28 '13 at 22:12
  • For the same reason, you may want to include the word 'county' (or parish, as appropriate) in your place names.
    – Jan Murphy
    Nov 29 '13 at 2:37

In general, I would say that there is certainly nothing wrong with using the word county when referencing a US place name. In some cases, it is necessary in order to correctly identify the location. For instance, Wikipedia claims (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_towns_in_New_York) that there are 11 pairs of towns in New York that share the same name but are located in different counties. Without specifying which county, it would be difficult or impossible to identify the correct location.

On the other hand, as was mentioned in another answer, some county borders have changed substantially in the past. Thus, using the name of the contemporary county could potentially cause confusion, rather than clarify the issue. For example, say you had an ancestor living in what is now Manchester, Bennington County, Vermont around 1767. At the time, that was considered part of Albany County, New York. However, there is also a town in what is now Ontario County, NY named Manchester, and in 1767 that would also have been part of Albany County (technically, the second Manchester wasn't settled until 1793, but the general point still stands). Today, however, there is no town named Manchester located within Albany County, NY. So if you listed a location as "Manchester, Albany County, NY," it is quite possible that a future descendent reading your research would not know what town, or even what state, their ancestor came from.

Another thing to consider is whether it helps you or another genealogist find records in the future. If you have relatives in the south or west, many vital records will be kept at the county level, so knowing which county an event took place in will help substantially in finding other supporting records. On the other hand, if your relatives are from New England, all of the vital and probate records are kept by the towns. Thus, knowing the county tells you very little.

Basically, I would second what Jan Murphy said - use whatever makes the data least ambiguous and offers the most clarity.

In many ways, I think this is related to the eternal question of whether to use the name of the place as it was known then, or the name as it is now. As with that question, I think it very much depends on the exact situation.

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