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Where in the World is…? Changes in Naming Cities, Streets, and House Numbers




Where in the World is Northfield, Saratoga County, New York?  Good question. Turns out it’s nowhere .  When my 5th great-grandmother, Elizabeth (Kennicutt) Whitman, was born there in October of 1801 it was a newly-formed village.  In 1799 and 1800 the area had been part of the town of Providence, but it was growing so Northfield was incorporated on 13 March 1801.  Soon, the town founders were embarrassed to find there was already a Northfield in New York, so they renamed it Edinburg (Sylvester, History of Saratoga County, New York, 372).  In those few months between name changes, little Elizabeth was born.

Never Fear, Genealogical Help is Here.  Name changes to towns and cities are more common than you might think.  You’re not the only one looking for that elusive town.  There are genealogists and historians who have taken the time to search out some of these changes.  Examples are found in many places.  If you have New York ancestors, try GenWeb’s “Changes in Names of New York State Towns.”  For city and town changes in your ancestor’s county, check historic gazetteers, usually found in the county historical society or county library.   Watch out, though.  Your ancestor’s elusive town may not have changed its name, it may be that the county lines changed around it over time and you’re just looking in the wrong county. Use early local maps, gazetteers, or Thornton & Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 for those changing county and state lines.

Changing Streets?  Street name changes are some of the most common.  Street names  changed as towns grew or were merged, or someone was honored in the town.  Big cities see lots of changes.  For early street changes you may have to do  a little detective work.  Use early maps to find the original street you are looking for. Many are online at the Library of Congress website, including some overseas maps.  Compare those with your favorite online mapping website.  Some streets are just gone to make way for freeways or parks.

Still having trouble?  City directories are your best bet.  Often a city directory will have listings of where the streets were during that time, with associated cross-streets.  Use these to pinpoint the streets you are looking for.  Once, when looking for a client’s ancestor who lived in Baltimore in 1819, I found that he lived on South Eutaw Street “near the brickyards.”  It took a bit of digging in city directories and newspapers to find brickyards in that area (advertisements were very helpful from both).  With the help of an early map of Baltimore by Poppleton in 1822, I narrowed down the area to the blocks on South Eutaw between Camden and Conway Streets.  With a chuckle, I informed my clients that if they’d like to visit the area the ancestor lived in, they should try left field, Camden Yards!  Just another example of how changing cities can be.

Changing House Numbers?  Sometimes specific addresses are given in our ancestor’s records (deeds, obituaries, military pensions, later censuses), and knowing who else is in that house or in the area can be helpful to our search.  Again, city directories are a big help here.  The Boyd’s 1869 city directory for Washington D.C. is quoted as saying:

“Many of our streets need renumbering, especially 7th, 9th, and F streets, and Pennsylvania and New York avenues.  There are squares having duplicate numbers, and in some cases triplicate numbers.  In fact, the whole city ought to be renumbered.”

City directories are found in county historical societies, state archives, libraries, and on microfilm.  Before you take a trip, though, try your luck online.  I like the ConnerGenealogy website on Baltimore city directories, especially the downloadable pdf of the pages from the 1887 Baltimore City Directory detailing the numbering changes in the city that had happened in 1886.  The site also addresses Baltimore’s street name changes.  Perhaps someone has done similar work on your ancestor’s area?

Changing Our Perspective.  Looking for changing geography, town names, and house numbers can often lead to researching even more carefully the area where our ancestor lived.  This in-depth style searching may open up your perspective into a closer-to-life idea of type of life your ancestor really lived.  “Seeing” his or her neighborhood is a little like seeing back in history and appreciating the struggles or advantages they had in their community.  Take some time to turn back the clock.