As I delve deeper into my family history, I have come to the conclusion that places are going to kill me. Well, not places so much as how they are recognized and what is where. As I look at records, I see a bunch of different words that I thought meant the same thing, but turns out they mean their own thing. Confused yet? Yeah, me too.
As a courtesy to those of you newbies to the genealogy world, I have made you a little cheat sheet. I basically did some geographical homework for you. Below is what I managed to figure out.
How can this help you? I have found that what an area was called has given me insight as to what the life of that family might have been like. I think it might make more sense when you have finished reading this.
A county is a large area that handles the smaller towns, cities, villages, etc., within its jurisdiction. This includes most of the legalities involved with the operation of the smaller entities. The legal middleman, if you will, between state and local.
A city is a pretty big permanent settlement. Although there is nothing carved in stone on how to tell a city from a town, a lot of cities have a specific administrative, legal, or historical status based on the law of the area. Take Massachusetts (a state); an article of incorporation gives approval by the state legislature that determines a city government from a town. In the UK, a city is usually a settlement with a royal charter.
A town is a place where people live. They are larger than villages, but smaller than cities. Each country may define its own guidelines for these classifications. In the USA we have small towns. In the UK the same size place would be called villages. Then again, a small town in Britain might be considered a city in the USA.
A township is an area that might be urban, but in many places, such as Australia, Asia, and Canada it could be an area that is actually rural and outside more of a small town. While in Europe this term is more historical, it is still relevant to records and how certain places were referred to. Generally, a township is a step below a county, but can also be a municipality.
A village is a cluster of communities that serve specific types of inhabitants, especially with regard to agriculture. Villages are usually permanent, but have been known to travel. Without going into the definition of a hamlet, a village is smaller than a town and historically speaking a hamlet grew up to be a village when it got a church.
A borough is an area that, while it may consist of a higher population, is most recognized because it has its own local government. Boroughs are more often found in Europe, but a few areas in the USA have taken advantage of this, the most well-known being New York.
Once you have traced your family back to a German immigrant, you must find the city or town your ancestor came from if you wish to find earlier generations. The records you will need to continue your research, such as birth, marriage, and death records, are kept in local areas. Germany has no nationwide index to these records.
Another attempt by the state to require the keeping of vital records was made in 1880, and this law is the basis for the recording of births, marriages, and deaths in New York today. The record was made in the town, village, or city in which the event took place and, after being recorded there (in ledger volumes), the original certificate was sent to Albany, where alphabetical indexes of names are arranged by event and then by year. Today, the original certificate is forwarded to the Department of Health, with the local registrar keeping a duplicate copy. Each index entry lists the name, date of event, place, and certificate number; no maiden names or marital status are shown for deaths, and ages at death are given only from 1940. Marriages are indexed by the name of each party, but there is no cross-referencing except for 1908 to 1914 and since 1944, when the first four letters of the spouse’s surname are included. Since compliance with the 1880 law was slow, many events were not recorded.