Maps and genealogy = big topic. So I’m narrowing it down to the Board on Geographic Names (BGN) and how it can help your research. A few days ago I found a record for a family member that stated he lived in Union, Wisconsin. What I thought would be a quick search for the county revealed seven places named Union in Wisconsin:

Union, Burnett County, Wisconsin, a town

Union, Door County, Wisconsin, a town

Union, Eau Claire County, Wisconsin, a town

Union, Pierce County, Wisconsin, a town

Union, Rock County, Wisconsin, a town

Union, Vernon County, Wisconsin, a town

Union, Waupaca County, Wisconsin, a town

It made me wish that the Board on Geographic Names (BGN) at the U.S. Geographical Survey had been on the job when those towns were being founded.

The BGN, established in 1890, is responsible for determining the official name and location of all places and geological features within the U.S., Antarctica, and for undersea features.

The need for standardized place names arose, according to the BGN Web site, “during the surge of exploration, mining, and settlement of western territories after the American Civil War. Inconsistencies and contradictions among many names, spellings, and applications became a serious problem to surveyors, map makers, and scientists…. President Benjamin Harrison signed an Executive Order establishing the Board and giving it authority to resolve unsettled geographic names questions.”

The BGN also serves as a resource for the general public. Any person or organization may inquiry about place names or request the BGN to render formal decisions on proposed new names, proposed name changes, or names that are in conflict.

Because historical names are tracked, this makes the work of the BGN of special interest to genealogists. The results of their work are kept in a public searchable database called the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS), which contains more than 2 million names for geographic and cultural locations in the United States. One of my favorite research sites, Histopolis, uses GNIS data. And the GNIS database might come in handy for direct searches as you work on your American ancestors.

(And my guy was from Rock County, btw.)