Where Do I Find...? Identifying Place Names and Their Possible Significance

by Michael Pollock | Feb 28, 2012

Michael Pollock

One problem many genealogists will encounter is being unable to find records when they cannot identify a place associated with an individual being researching. I grew up in a time when there was a widespread perception that places rarely, if ever, changed in terms of either where a specific place was located or what it was called. However, from having moved as a preteen from metropolitan Washington, DC, to the rural Eastern Shore of Virginia, I know that at least in Virginia it was it was not usual into the 1990s for rural roads to have route numbers rather than street names and that when roads had names, there could be no signs, much less maps, displaying the name, nor would the name be required for a letter to be delivered by the post office or a courier service to any home or business on the road.

While in high school, I lived on Wilsonia Neck Road at a farm called Pear Valley, but recall my mailing address as Route 3, Box 132. With the Adam Thoroughgood house in Virginia Beach being the only older standing private residence in Virginia, the actual Pear Valley was a local landmark, but it did not appear on most maps until placed on the Historical Register (and after I graduated from high school as I recall). As for directions on how to get there, locals would likely tell you "turn off (US) 13 at Dick Nelson's Texaco". I don't recall there being any sign with "Nelson" on the building, but everyone knew Dick drove a school buses in addition to operating the station, so "Nelson" was enough to tell any local to look for a school bus parked to one side of the building.

When I moved in 1989 from Arlington County to 6419 Colts Neck Road, in Mechanicsville (Hanover County), there were no road signs anywhere along the same to tell travelers the name which also did not appear on most local maps. My sister lived roughly the distance of 2 city blocks from me but had an address of Route 12, Box 380. Even if a local did not recognize the name Colts Neck, they did know "Jack's Grill" at the intersection of Colts Neck with the road on which my sister lived, as not only was it a favorite "watering hole", but the location of a "field" where it was rare not to see a "pick-up" game of baseball going most weekends year around and daily during the summer months. The field disappeared first, followed by the grill, both replaced by houses, but as a result of a 911/Emergency Services Enhancement county-wide in Hanover in 1994, not only does Colts Neck now have road signs with its name at every intersection along it, but my address became 7315 and my sister's house is located on Sandy Valley Road.

While similar changes occurred in cities, they typically occurred much earlier and until going to the post office to pick up their mail was no longer the norm, might be referenced only in a deed when a property was sold. Needless to say, my childhood gave me a greater appreciation than many people that place names/address have rarely been "static".

With the number of long-established businesses, along with their "landmark" names, that in the living memory of virtually everyone alive today have disappeared either as a result of bankruptcy or being bought by another company, popular perception that names do not or cannot change over time is itself beginning to change. Still, I cannot help but wonder, since the overwhelmingly majority of people today have always lived in heavily urbanized areas, how widely it is appreciated that where my experiences on the Eastern Shore and in Hanover County are now the exception, they were once the norm.

Lacking an address that consisted of a house number and street name, people then might have identified their residence by a local business, be it a plantation house, general store, or mill, which might also have doubled as the local post office, and if the ownership of that business changed, chances are the name of the post office there would as well, unless, of course, the post office and community it served already had different names. As population and commercial centers shifted, the local of a post office might be changed to be more convenient to the majority of those it served as people had to go the post office to pick up or send mail until the institution of Rural Free Delivery in the area of Norwood, Warren County, Georgia, in 1868, and subsequent expansion nationwide. When a post office was moved, it might keep the name or have it changed. The location of Holton, West Virginia, was shifted from Morgan into Berkeley over the course of three moves of its post office without a change of the post office name.

Post Offices

The primary reason for a post office to have a different name than the community is served was to avoid possible confusion with another post office of the same name. Ultimately in such situations, the name of the post office typically supplanted the community name, but one striking example of local resistance to the same is Petersburg, West Virginia.

Its post office was established before the Civil War, when there was no WEST Virginia, so to avoid any possible confusion of it with the post office called Petersburg that already existed and was located roughly 35 miles south of Richmond, the U.S. Post Office Department named its office there "Lunice Creek" as the town was located along the course of a creek of that name.

Soon after West Virginia became a separate state, residents of Lunice Creek successfully petitioned to have the name of that post office changed to Petersburg As there was presumably no longer any potential for confusion with Petersburg, "Old/East Virginia", almost immediately after West Virginia was admitted as a separate state, residents of Lunice Creek petitioned, successfully, to have the name of that post office changed to Petersburg.

How ironic that some confusion continues to persist. Tradition claims Petersburg, WV, was founded by, thus named after, Tunis Peters--I have seen several references attributing Tunis as the namesake of the Petersburg in "East" Virginia.

As already noted, place names are not exclusively post office names. In rural areas, people might have once referred to places by local "landmarks" that may no longer exist. I've already mentioned "Jack's Grill" as an example of the same.

A "Tasty" Dilemma

Similarly, when compiling my book of York County, Virginia, marriages, I was struck by the number of instances during the 1800s where the residence of either the bride or groom, if not both, was identified as "Cheesecake". In spite of having lived in the immediate area of York County while attending the College of William & Mary, and also being familiar with the area as a result of schools in York County being sometime rivals of the high school I attended, I wasn't familiar with this name until I started to do genealogical research, and I was quite struck by several different things. First was how "quaint" the name is. Could it have been because the cheesecake had been invented there? No, it was actually a corruption of Chiskiak, also spelled Kiskiak, name of a Indian village/tribe that existed in what is now York County when English settlers first arrived in Virginia. It was subsequently the name of a parish of the Anglican (now Episcopal) Church in York County, created in 1640 (see Parish Lines, Diocese of Southern Virginia, page 173). Second, I was struck by the fact that although Kiskiak Parish was effectively abolished when renamed Hampton Parish in 1643 (since merged with Hampton Parish to form the current Yorkhampton Parish in 1707), and, according to Wikipedia, the last mention of the Kiskiak tribe in official Virginia records was in 1666 during Bacon's Rebellion, the name apparently continued to be used colloquially until "revived" as part of the "Traditional Golf Trail" of greater Williamsburg. Wikipedia also claims there is a structure called Kiskiak on the grounds of the Naval Weapons Station just west of Yorktown (the immediate area of the original Kiskiak village), but I have no first hand knowledge of the same.

If that structure indeed exists and it is on the site of the original village of the name, it would be a rare exception not just in its continued survival, but also the "continuity" of its name. While such plantations as Berkeley (home of the Harrison family), Sherwood Forest (home of the Tyler family), and Arlington (home first of the Custis family, then Robert E. Lee, though there is another, older, Custis plantation house, also called Arlington, on the Eastern Shore), have always had those names, plantations in general were christened by their owners after the land was acquired, so when sold out of the family, would often be renamed by the new owners if only to note the ownership had changed as well.

Continuity of place names over not just generations, but even changes in ownership, have been far more common in Maryland, as the names by which they are still known today were given in the original land grants--the result of Maryland having been founded as a proprietary of Calverts, the family of Lord Baltimore, thus, under English common law, continuation of the name implicitly confirmed the right to convey the same to another? There was a similar proprietary in Virginia, initially granted to Lord Culpeper and falling to Lord Fairfax by virtue of marriage when Culpeper has no male issue, in what is called "The Northern Neck", but I am hard pressed to think of any "Fairfax" grants which were named unless part of Leeds Manor which was the seat of the Fairfax family in Virginia.

As a result of my believing, but thus far unable to confirm, that I am a double descendant, through the Belt and Edmondson families, of Ninian Beall, the original owner, the example of such continuity that comes most quickly to mind is Chevy Chase, though I suspect most people are familiar with the name of that community in southeastern corner of Montgomery County along the border with the District of Columbia because of the comedian of the same name.

While Kiskiak specifically served to illustrate the importance of placing a name in its proper historical context, in Virginia, there is a further context that is equally, if not more, important, to wit, governmental. First, there have been multiple instances of two distinctively different counties of the same name existing in Virginia at different times: a)Fayette County (the original now part of what is Kentucky, while the second is now in West Virginia); b)Jefferson (the original now part of what is Kentucky, while the second is now in West Virginia); c)Lincoln (the original now part of what is Kentucky, while the second is now in West Virginia); d)Madison (the original now part of what is Kentucky, while the second is in present day Virginia); e)Mercer (the original now part of what is Kentucky, while the second is in present day West Virginia); f)Nelson (the original now part of what is Kentucky, while the second is in present day Virginia); and g)Rappahannock (both counties of this name have been in present day Virginia, the original encompassing all of what is now Richmond and Essex Counties as well as the southern parts of Westmoreland, King George, Stafford and Fauquier and northern parts of Caroline, Spottsylvania, Orange, Culpeper and the present Rappahannock).

Was It a City, County or Parish?

The fact there still exist in Virginia two counties with "city" as part of their names is potentially confusing to the beginning genealogist and even more experienced researchers who work primarily outside of the Commonwealth. It does not help matters that not only when counties were first established in Virginia in 1634 they were all referred to as "cittie", though that practice was quickly abandoned, but also that another original "City", now extinct as a result of its being annexed by the city of Hampton in 1952, is so easily confused with Elizabeth City, NC, by virtue of having "Elizabeth City" as part of its name.

Until the Disestablishment Act of 1785, all Virginia residents were required to attend and tithe to the Church of England (now Episcopal Church), and it was not unusual for an individual to be identified primarily by his/her parish. In some areas, use of the parish name for identification purposes continued after 1785, and when there was more than one parish in the same county, the parish names were often used for the names of districts for which a tax collector or sheriff might be appointed. There is also a potential for confusion not just because parishes, as noted in the discussion regarding Kiskiak, were sometimes renamed, abolished, and even "reassigned", but parishes were also typically created in advance of a new county, with some parishes having the same name as a county elsewhere in the state. One example that comes immediately to mind is Albemarle, the Parish being located in Sussex County near the eastern border of Virginia with North Carolina but west of Norfolk, with the county being located in the central Blue Ridge region west by northwest of Richmond. Much like Elizabeth City County in Virginia sometimes being confused with Elizabeth City, NC, there was once both an Albemarle Precinct and County in North Carolina that in the 1600s adjoined the area of Albemarle Parish in Virginia, though neither that Parish nor Sussex County then existed. Let us not forget, either, that Albemarle Sound is still the name of some of the coastal waters of North Carolina.

Virginia is further unique among the 50 states, potentially causing further confusion, in that cities here are independent of counties, even when completely surrounded by a county or sharing facilities with it (as several cities and counties do, among them Williamsburg with James City County and Winchester with Frederick County). The closest parrallel is the 5 boroughs of New York City. This distinction can be very important for locating any records on an individual, because one can never be certain if one will find a specific record in the city or the county and even in what agency of the city. Most cities were created under the constitutions under which Virginia operated from 1869 until 1970 in which the primary court of record for cities was known as the Hustings Court and was the equivalent of the Circuit Court for counties. However, a Circuit Court also existed in cities and should not be ignored when records one would expect to find in the Hustings Court are not there. At different times there have been District Courts with jurisdiction over multiple counties &/or cities.

Perhaps too many are accustomed to current strict protocols that if actually followed would have a record filed both only in its proper locality and that location easily surmised, but the reality can be otherwise. (Greater) Richmond is an excellent example of the same. In 2009 Henrico County was given permission and earlier this year Chesterfield County was also given permission by the U.S. Post Office Department to change the postal name of neighborhoods which had been using Richmond as part of their address to Henrico and Chesterfield, respectively. Both jurisdictions requested the change believing that some residents had been mistakenly paying property, sales and other taxes or fees to the city, and the amount of such misdirected payments would drop with the elimination of Richmond from their addresses. Fortunately, this change is voluntary, as I prefer to continue to use Richmond as a part of my address even though I live in Henrico because the majority of my clients will be quicker to recognize Richmond than Henrico as establishing I have the necessary access to the records I use for their research.

I also find it difficult to believe anyone would pay the higher tax rates for the city of Richmond without first confirming they are indeed residents of the city, but historically it has not been unusual for records specifically for the city of Richmond to be recorded in Henrico and vice versa because some Henrico County offices were formerly located within city limits into the 1980s. The situation has been "aggravated" by the fact that the city of Richmond has annexed portions of Henrico County five times, most recently in 1942.

Boundaries between Virginia counties have changed by means other than the formation of a new county or the expansion of a city, to wit, the redrawing of the boundary between King George and Stafford Counties in 1776 and the ceding of a portion of King George to Westmoreland at the same time, along with the ceding of a part of western Louisa to Albemarle County in 1761, all of which occurred by acts of the Virginia legislature for counties have never had the power of annexation that cities do, and counties have had few options to block annexations by a city. As a result several counties have been annexed out of existence by adjoining cities, to wit, Elizabeth City by Hampton in 1952, Warwick by Newport News in 1958, Princess Anne by Virginia Beach in 1963, Norfolk by Chesapeake in 1963 and Nansemond by Suffolk, though the latter was actually accomplished when Nansemond first incorporated as a city in 1972 then merged with Suffolk in 1974.

Arlington, yet another Virginia locality, warrants mention here because it is widely perceived as a city, even by its own residents, but is actually a county.

Courthouse or Archive

The question of whether a locality is a city or county and if a city, when it became a city, is important for genealogical research because most of the 35 cities in Virginia were created late enough that there are presently few if any records available anywhere but at the courthouse, though I have found for most courthouses I have visited that current records are typically being digitized as they are presented for recording, making those records easier to search than the earlier paper copies. The problem with that is when one finds a lead pointing to another jurisdiction, one typically is obliged to drive to that location, perhaps sacrificing research time, while working with microfilm at a library of manuscripts at an archive, one needs only to go to an adjoining cabinet and if nothing is found, one simply goes back to the previous cabinet.

Because Virginia cities have the power of annexation, allbeit now subject to review by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible violations of federal civil rights laws, a similar potential exist for records of the city of Richmond to be recorded in Chesterfield and records for Chesterfield to be recorded in the city of Richmond as has already been noted with Henrico as the result first of the 1910 annexation by Richmond of the former city of Manchester, once not just part of Chesterfield County, but also its former seat of government, and subsequent annexations of land belonging specifically to Chesterfield, though I am not personally aware of any actual instances of the same. There have also been three subsequent Richmond annexations, the most recent in 1970, of portions of Chesterfield County.

What is perhaps most striking about the fact that the Henrico County Courthouse was located within the city of Richmond until 1974 is that the deed conveying the tract to the county contained a covenant that stipulated that if Henrico ever abandoned the property, it would revert back to the descendants of John Cocke, the individual who had donated the land to the county. The violation of that covenant would likely have gone both unnoticed and without recourse by Cocke's heirs due to a 10 year statute of limitation for which the "clock" began to "tick" in 1974, if not for the efforts of the late Richard Cocke, a John Cocke descendant. As an attorney, he recognized the potential significance of the statute, so delayed his initial filing of the suit until almost the end of 10 allowed years knowing that while he would likely not have time to identify all the heirs, he could identify enough to establish for the Court the merit of his suit and be granted additional time to complete the research. I first learned of this suit when an article about it from the Richmond Times-Dispatch was preprinted in the Virginia Genealogical Society Newsletter near the end of the additional time granted Mr. Cocke, and my interest was piqued in part because I have Cox ancestry in the right area and time period, though my Cox family turned out to be distinctly separate from that of John Cocke, the fact the surnames were phonetically identical notwithstanding.

In addition to the importance of knowing where a place was located and what it was named, the Henrico County Courthouse suit illustrates two other important aspects of place names research for genealogy: 1)using original records to know all pertinent details, the subject of another article of mine for Expert Series; and 2)knowing the applicable laws at the time of a particular record, perhaps the subject of a subsequent article in the series?


Having earlier spoke of the "quaintness" of the name "Cheesecake", I am reminded of a number of other place names of a similar nature. First is the name of Cold Harbor, site of a Civil War battlefield in Hanover County, Virginia, and a community just a few miles from Jack's Grill--close enough that there are trenchworks from that battle in the front yard of my home on Colts Neck Road. Though some individuals dispute the story and I must admit that I have seen no firm evidence to prove it true, one account is that it is so name because it was once a way station on a stage route ending in Richmond. The proprietor would both accept overnight guests, hence the "harbor", and serve food to them, but would not cook it, hence the "cold".

Second is the story of the name for a community in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore (Delmarva Peninsula) of Virginia called Exmore established in 1884 as a depot for a railroad running from Philadelphia, PA, to Norfolk, VA, where no town had previously existed. Because there was no town to lend the depot a name, officials decided to call it "X" (the Roman numeral 10) more when someone noticed it was the 11th depot from the ferry at Cape Charles which connected the line to Norfolk.

Similarly many of the towns along the route of the Norfolk Southern Railway line between Petersburg and Norfolk were started as depots and given their names by William Mahone, builder of what was then called the Norfolk and Petersburg Railway and his wife Otelia using Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe as a guide. Legend has it that because the couple could not agree on a name from the novel for a depot in southern Prince George County, they "coined" Disputana to "celebrate" their "disgreement".

There are several further pieces of what I consider to be interesting trivia where Virginia place names are concerned. For example, I have always wondered if it is merely coincidence that the part of Portsmouth, Virginia, where the Norfolk Naval Shipyard is located is known as Gosport as the shipbuilding district in the city of Portsmouth, England, has the same name.

Among the most unusual place names in Virginia is that of the Mattaponi River, which forms the York (originally Charles) River by its confluence with the Pamunkey River. While the Pamunkey is formed by the confluence of the North and South Anna Rivers, the Mattponi is created by the confluence of the Matta and Poni Rivers which are in turn formed by the confluences of the Mat and Ta, and the Po and Ni, Rivers, respectively.

In Review

To be able to find records to confirm the residence, particularly in Virginia, of any individual at a specific time, it is important to establish: 1)if a place name mentioned in conjunction with the same was a county, parish, community, post office or other type of name; 2)by what other name(s) the place may have been known; 3)when a particular name may have first been used; and 4)if there had been any changes to the boundaries for a specific place and what the date(s) of any changes may have been.

Most Highly Recommended for Further Research

  • Postal Site Applications and Reports (National Archives Records Group 28). Nationwide, these records are organized by state, then county and finally by name of post office. These reports note such things as when a post office was established, whether the post office had the same name as the community it served, when the physical location changed, to where and sometimes even the reason why. It was not unusual for the reports and applications to include maps of the immediate area, some quite crude, while others were impressive in their detail.
  • USGS Geographical Names Information System: also nation-wide; available on-line. This site indexes names of communities and landmarks identified on USGS 7.5' topographical maps by specific map and coordinates on the same.
  • Lippincott's Pronouncing Gazetteer of the World. The earliest edition with which I am familiar was published in 1854. Most individual entries for communities included the number and types of churches, and schools. Also included were major streams. A CD with a copy of the same was included as a premium with Ultimate Family Tree, a genealogy database program jointly developed by CommSoft and Palladium Interactive.
  • Andriot's Township Atlas of the United States, 1979. Nationwide, as its title indicates, this book differs from many of its "competitors" in that it shows political subdivisions of counties that typically are omitted from highway and topographical maps, but often used in census and other records consulted by genealogists. It can be very helpful in identifying where within a county such a division may lie, but users should be mindful that, given the date of the book it shows the boundaries as of that date, thus may not be completely accurate where census and other genealogically valuable records may be concerned.
  • A New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Joseph A. Martin (1836). One of the earliest gazetteers compiled specifically of Virginia place names. Entries are organized by county. An index to the same can be found online
  • Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Grants, 1623-1776, Nell Marion Nugent and Dennis A. Hudgins, editors. The individual volumes contain detailed indexes of place names, many now extinct/obsolete, but by referring to the actual grants it is possible to plat maps of the individual grants from the physical descriptions that are not included in the abstracts themselves which can be matched to present-day recognizable landmarks, though with differing degrees of ease.
  • A Gazetteer of Virginia and West Virginia, Henry A. Gannett, 1904. While not particularly detailed in terms of describing where within a county an entry was actually located, it did emphasize post offices and railway depots existing at the time as well as streams and mountains/ridges.

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