In-Depth Guide – Part 4 – Ancestry Location Guidelines

“Ancestry Location Guidelines” is Part 4 of an in-depth guide to Ancestry. This chapter is about entering place names in your Ancestry tree..

This is the current chapter list in the series:

Once more we say that conventions and guidelines aren’t about foisting annoying rules on tree owners. The purpose is to give:

  • You a convenient and consistent format for noting facts in your tree
  • Others the best chance at seeing common lines and co-operating with your research
  • Ancestry Search the best chance of matching with records relevant to your tree
Ancient map

Ancestry Location Guidelines

Before we get to more difficult scenarios, lets start with the basic recommendations from Ancestry.

Small to Large

Is it Paris, France? Or France, Paris …

The most basic guideline is to go from small to large. This direction tends to be followed consistently by Ancestry users, regardless of culture or continent.

Separate with comma and space

Ancestry’s preferred format is to separate locations with a comma and space.

Some data analysis across my matches throws up a significant 25% of trees that have at least some entries that use spaces without commas. Take this entry with “Halifax North Carolina” for example:

Suppose you hit the “Search” button having created an entry in your tree with a birthplace of “Halifax North Carolina”. You expect the automated process will include a comparison to USA records that are indexed by State (North Carolina) and County (Halifax).

Now think of what’s going on under the hood. The automated process must chop up your three words (Halifax North Carolina), and put them back together into two parts: “Halifax” and “North Carolina”. Without any prior knowledge, another option is that this is a district called “Halifax North” in some town named “Carolina”. Maybe up in Canada, as no country is provided.

You see that providing an explicit separation, with the comma, means you’re removing any ambiguity.

Given Ancestry’s user base + the volume of US indexed records + the sophistication of the Search software: we can safely assume that it’ll make the correct choice here.

Working as I do with Irish place-names, I don’t take that chance. Commas all the way!

Record everything, but not necessarily in the “Birth” and “Death” fields

We’ve said go small to large…but how low do we go? To the town? The street?

Ancestry’s advice is to “record as much information as possible about where an event happened”.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you put the hospital ward into the Birthplace field in the Quick Edit box.  Nor do you put the cemetery address into the Deathplace field. But Ancestry gives you multiple options for entering locations – we’ll show you in a later section.

The Challenge of History vs Standardized Locations

These charming houses in the Alsace region of France switched country four times over one hundred years.

Countries form and dissolve. Boundaries and jurisdictions change within countries over time.

The challenge when building your tree is to choose how to record places which have changed over time.

You can certainly record many alternate locations for a single entry, but you need to choose a primary location – usually what you enter in the Quick Edit box. There are two basic choices.

  1. Record the location as it is known at the current time of building your tree
  2. Record the location as it was known at the time of the event

Unlike standardized date formats, there isn’t a clear consensus across the genealogical community.

What does Ancestry want?

Let’s side-step a recommendation for now, and take a look at what the Ancestry software can connect most efficiently with its record collections.

Here’s an example of a tree entry with place-name as it was prior to the formation of the United States of America.

“Culpeper County, Colony of Virginia” crops up in various trees in Ancestry for date periods under British rule. But try typing part of it into the Quick-Entry box, and look at the auto-complete suggestions:

Worse than that, type the full “Culpeper County, Colony of Virginia”:

Notice the commas? Ancestry is chopping up “Colony of Virginia” into three distinct parts. If you accept the suggestion, that’s how it goes into your tree.

It’s not just the United States… I spotted Van Diemen’s Land as an entry in the tree of an Australian match; Ancestry doesn’t recognize it either. But I notice that Australian tree-editors tend to use Tasmania regardless of date.

What you can take from this exercise is that Ancestry’s preference is current location over historical designation, and its primary Search index uses the current place names.

However, you can reject all suggestions and type in anything you want.

Here’s a strategy, not a guideline

It can be jarring to be steered towards a misrepresentation of history that you know well. So when Ancestry wants to append a country name when you know that country did not exist at the time – it’s like chalk on a blackboard for some.

On the Ancestry side – consider that places are most efficiently indexed in a hierarchy where the top level is always a single country from a list of standardized country names. Yes, the technology could be more sophisticated – but you might be waiting hours for searches to complete.

If you feel strongly about historical representation, I suggest that you take a dual approach:

Enter the primary birth and death place exactly as you see fit – for ancestors and individuals for whom your research is complete. You may want to add the modern location as an alternate fact.

Enter the Ancestry-standardized location for ancestors and individuals that you consider still open to research. These are entries where you may still benefit from insights and hints from Ancestry’s ongoing acquisition of new record collections. You may want to add the historical location as an alternate fact.

Auto-complete suggestions (and misconceptions)

We’ve shown an example of where Ancestry’s auto-complete suggestions are not helpful.

Usually they are a wonderful time-saver. They also ensure you do not enter misspellings into your entry that then fail to find source records.

There are some common misconceptions that pop up in forums and social media so its worth explaining how they work.

The two location lists

The auto-complete function pulls suggestions from two different lists.

The first list is Ancestry’s standardized locations. Here is where you’ll find “Virginia, USA” but you won’t see “Colony of Virginia”.

The second list are entries that you have already made in this tree. When you have ignored Ancestry’s suggestions and you typed (or copied) a location entry, Ancestry includes these in the auto-complete list in this tree.

In this example, I added a person with a birthplace manually typed as “Culpeper, Colony of Virginia”. I then added a parent and typed only “Culpeper”. See? Now Ancestry is showing me the non-standard location that comes from the entries within this tree.

Misconception #1: other member entries are included in the location lists

I see this assertion pop up from time to time on forums and social media:

The autocompletion list is from previous member data entries. Your entry gets added to the database for future autocompletion by other members.

No, definitely not. My examples prove the rule. “Culpeper, Colony of Virginia” has been entered in several public trees but was not in the location list when I created the first person in a new tree. It suddenly appeared when I entered it myself and added a second person.

When I open a different tree that I own and start typing a location entry as “Culpeper”: nope, no sign of “Culpeper, Colony of Virginia”.

So not only do other member entries not get include in the autocompletion lists, your own entries don’t span (or spam!) your trees.

Misconception #2: Ancestry’s location autocompletion lists are guaranteed correct

Misconception #3: Ancestry’s location autocompletion lists are full of errors

I’ll lump #2 and #3 together because the truth is somewhere in between.

We’ve already discussed how Ancestry’s standardized lists represent current place names. But you may have stumbled occasionally on examples that are clearly wrong.

There was a systems problem back in 2017 whereby some locations got mangled. Some cities were being shown in the wrong continent. Different place names seemed to be mashed together. There was of course a slew of complaints, and Ancestry did a clean-up exercise. I haven’t happened on a wacky example for a long time, so I guess they’ve done a good job.

The problem lingers on because some tree editors accepted Frankenstein locations into their tree without noticing.  And when others accept these tree entries as legitimate hints…it perpetuates. Not in the autocompletion list itself, but in how easy Ancestry makes copying entries from other trees.

You can be sure to avoid the problem if you evaluate any family tree hint with particular care, and ensure it was backed up with credible records attached to the entry.

Full names or abbreviations?

The genealogical consensus is not to over-use abbreviations. Ancestry’s standardized locations tend to follow this guideline. An exception is USA which is curious. But I suspect this relates to saving storage space in the most frequently entered country in their system.

The main reason is that abbreviations mean different things in different places at different times.

Hospitals, orphanages, cemeteries and other addresses

You may want to record orphanages, hospitals, asylums, funeral parlours, and cemeteries. Right down to a street number or postal code.

The guideline here is to add these details as an additional fact from the profile page. You’ll see “Address”, “Residence” and “Cemetery” as categories. You can also add your own type of entry as a Custom Event.

Be sure to use the description to remind yourself (and inform others) of what the entry is about. And add citations where available.

What if you’re only kinda sure of whereabouts?

The chapter on date formats covered the use of “abt.” as an approximation. There is no equivalent for location in the Ancestry software.

In the wider genealogy world, “near” is often used (in quotations). But this is not an Ancestry term. If you do try it, you’ll be offered something like this:

Ancestry has stripped the quotations and is treating “near” as the lowest unit of your place name.

I recommend that you enter the standardized location, and then add a comment or note to describe the reasons for uncertainty.

All at Sea

Births at sea tend to be recorded as appendices in a ship’s passenger manifest.  Deaths at sea are usually recorded in a ship’s log. Ancestry has collections of maritime records, so you may find good records for these events.

There’s no particular convention here. Tree-owners often put in the name of the ship or the route of the voyage to give added context. To get the added benefit of hints, the best recommendation is to fill in other unambiguous facts on this person. Try to add at least the birth date and location, and the death date.

What’s Next?

In the next chapter, we’ll start an in-depth look at different methods and strategies for searching Ancestry’s record collections.

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