Anyone who has tried to uncover his or her family history knows that place is an integral part of every family’s story. The places our ancestors lived shaped their lives and experiences. They also determined what records were created about them. It makes sense, then, that to find our ancestors and understand their lives, we need to learn about the places they came from.
FamilySearch has a new tool called FamilySearch Places, which makes learning about places easier. Although the development of this tool is ongoing, some great features are already available, so you can start using it now.
Getting Started in Your Search
When you open the FamilySearch Places page, you’ll see a large map, with the FamilySearch main tabs across the top and a small search box near the upper left corner. Getting started is as easy as typing a place-name in the box. The place can be a town, parish, county, state, or any other kind of place. If you aren’t sure of the spelling, use wildcards in the place-name, such as “Neubrandenb*rg,” or use a tilde (~) to search for similar spellings (the tilde is usually found just left of the 1 key on a keyboard). With this flexibility, a search for “Providance~, Utah,” would also find “Providence, Utah,” and any similar place-names worldwide. The search results show possible place-name matches and identify the types of places they are. You may notice that the places in this database are the same ones used in FamilySearch when “standardizing” place information (such as birthplace or marriage place) about your ancestors.
If any historical constraints exist for a place, those will be included in the search results. For example, a search for “Wisconsin” will list the current state of Wisconsin as well as Wisconsin Territory, which lasted from 1836 to 1848. Such information may help you understand how your ancestor’s home has changed through the years and how record-keeping may have changed for that location.
Consider how the following examples could help you research the place-names of your ancestors. Suppose that you searched for the place-name “Neukloster.” From the results, you would see that this was the name of a town, a commune, and a Lutheran church. Next, suppose that you searched for a town named “Neustadt.” You would see dozens of possible matches from many different countries. These broad search results can ensure that you have considered all possibilities in your research. Perhaps while researching your family, you come across a town name but do not have the full context of where that town was. Seeing a full list of places with this name would help you find all possible matches. (The corresponding map is interactive, allowing you to zoom in or out and move around.)
After you have searched for a place-name and narrowed the results to one that you are interested in, click it to view further details about the place. The details are organized into sections, starting with Basic Information and History. Some places will have a short and rather simple history. Other places, such as those that changed jurisdictions, will have a more complicated history. The History section will show which jurisdictions the place was under during different time periods and will direct you where to look for records in each period. Knowing where to find records is a key benefit of using the History section.
Using Research Links
Below the History section of a selected place, you will find the Research Links section. Several of these connect to outside websites with place-focused information. For example, TheClio.com provides information about historical sites and museums near the place-name you searched, and WhatWasThere.com pins historical photos of the selected place to Google Maps. The amount of information available on these outside resources will vary greatly. For some places, you’ll find little, while for others, you’ll find a rich collection of photos, histories, and facts.
Another research link you should use is the “Search for Records for This Place on FamilySearch.” Clicking that link will search the historical records of FamilySearch. Under the Records tab, you can see people in Family Tree who are associated with the place. Under the Collections tab, you can see records associated with the place. Keep in mind, though, that you are not searching the entire catalog, only the historical records. This means that the results will not include a list of possible records for that place. For example, if you searched for “Neukloster” and then clicked to search the historical records on FamilySearch, you would see the Mecklenburg-Schwerin censuses listed. However, you would not see the all-important (but unindexed) church records that were kept in Neukloster. You would need to search the catalog to find those.
The other research links can provide a list of nearby places or other places found within that jurisdiction.
Finding Alternate Names
Below the Research Links section, you will find the Alternate Names section. This lists other names the place was known by throughout history. Such information could be particularly important for places that have changed jurisdictions. For example, if you searched for the city of Gdansk, Poland, the results would show that Gdansk was also known as Danzig, with German listed as the language. This would give you a new lead to follow in the search for your ancestor’s hometown, as well as an understanding of how the city records may have been kept and how they may now be categorized. You may find similar information about a place in the History section.
Exploring Additional Information
The final section of the basic search results is the Additional Information section. What you find here will vary. In this example for Wayne County, Utah, you can see a Wikipedia link and a FamilySearch Wiki link. The Wikipedia link explains a little about the geography of the place and provides links to some of the towns. The FamilySearch Wiki provides a wealth of information about records and resources. Reading through these would be a great way to jump-start your research for a location since it will familiarize you with the important records for the area and tell you how to access them.
If you’d like to explore further with place-name searches, experiment with the advanced search. Because the FamilySearch Places tool is still under construction, you should expect changes and adjustments as improvements are made. But why wait? Go ahead and explore the latest features now. With this place-centered resource, FamilySearch has made it more convenient than ever to lay the foundation you need to understand where your ancestors came from and know how to find them!