Research Tips: Jurisdiction Boundary Changes

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

“Button, button” is an old children’s game in which players arrange themselves in a tight circle and attempt to pass a button or other small object surreptitiously behind their backs from one person to another. The person in the middle tries to detect the passing in order to guess “who’s got the button?” So what has this got to do with genealogy? I am glad you asked! Government records – which are so useful in genealogical research – are stored in the repository of the jurisdiction where the event took place. That seems simple enough. But dealing with jurisdiction boundary changes can be tricky. You must determine where to search for the records in cases where a city or town has been in multiple jurisdictions. In fact, sometimes looking for records can feel like you are spinning around in a circle playing “button, button, who’s got the button!”

Early on in my blog I wrote an article titled, “5 GREAT SITES FOR COUNTY BOUNDARIES.” In this article I reference five websites that are useful in learning about U.S. county jurisdiction boundary changes. I want to expand on this subject to include other jurisdiction boundary changes. In many cases in European history, for instance, the boundaries of countries changed. Indeed the global political map continues to change almost every year. Within a country’s borders, smaller jurisdictions such as states, provinces, parishes, etc. have also changed over time. Nonetheless, in today’s article we stay generally within the U.S. and discuss additional changes beyond county boundary changes.

National and State Boundary Changes

For example, in early American history state boundaries changed. In some cases states were divided to form new states. In other cases U.S. territories held by the federal government were later granted statehood. Often the new state did not have the same boundaries as the earlier territory.

The map below shows the United States in 1789 at about the time of the ratification of the Constitution.

United States 1789

United States 1789


Spanish & British holdings

Take a few moments to study the map. You may also notice a few things you never knew before. You will find, for example, territory held by Spain including Florida and the American Southwest. But, you will also notice that the “Colony of Louisiana” was held by Spain at this time (taken from the French in 1762). By 1800, the French regained control of this vast tract of land just in time to sell it to the U.S. under the famed Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Heading up north we find that the UK still had claims to land within today’s boundaries of the United States. This area was known as “Rupert’s Land” and was governed by the Hudson Bay Company. The northern border along the 49th parallel would not be set until 1818. We could write an entire article on Connecticut’s land claims in the west (shown here as the “Connecticut Western Reserve”) and probably should. However, most of these areas were sparsely populated at best. So although these areas were controlled by different countries it is rare that you would have ancestors in these areas at this time.

States with “extra territory”

For this article let’s look at areas where more people were living. For example, notice the territory taken in by Georgia and Virginia. At this time in history, Georgia encompassed the vast majority of modern-day Alabama and Mississippi. Likewise, Virginia contained all of West Virginia and Kentucky.  At the outbreak of the Revolution in 1776, large numbers of settlers headed deeper in to the interior to present-day Kentucky. In fact, at the close of 1776 Kentucky County, Virginia was formed. If some of your ancestors included these early settlers of present-day Kentucky you might find land or court records in the Library of Virginia. As a practical matter, copies may also be found in the present-day state’s library or archive as well. Try to check out their catalog before making a trip!

Resources for identifying political jurisdiction boundary changes

Historical maps are a good resource to go to when trying to determine if jurisdiction boundary changes have affected your ancestors. Look for detailed maps of the area in which your ancestor resided during the same time period. Some online resources include animated maps that display jurisdiction boundary changes as a time lapse. For example, the site, contains animated maps for both U.S. States and Territories as well as county boundaries. I really like this visualization, but for answering a very specific research question it doesn’t quite get the job done for me.

Another “go to” resource for dealing with jurisdiction boundary changes is the AniMap software. This is commercial software that you can purchase for about $79.95. (I have no relationship with AniMap software.) The AniMap software has over 2,300 maps displaying U.S. county jurisdiction boundary changes. It also includes a feature called “SiteFinder” which allows you to type in the name of a town or other place and search its database of over 1 million place names.  You can use the software for free at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, but it is not available at local Family History Centers. This is an excellent resource but is limited because it is created for a single PC (or Mac).

I also like the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries found at the Newberry Library site. Unfortunately, some of the features have been unavailable for several months as they change out some of the underlying technology.

Online resources

One of the things I have been hoping for is a reliable online source where I could type in a place and a year and have it tell me what political jurisdiction that place was in. In my searching I came across Among other things, this site allows you to select maps of U.S. counties at any of the U.S. Census intervals. You can zoom in to see individual cities or towns as well.

Historical Maps shown at census intervals

Historical Maps shown at census intervals

But none of these really gave me the interface I was looking for. These show U.S. county boundaries at a point in time, and you can even animate the boundaries in a “time lapse” view. However, you still have to manually determine which county a particular town or city was in at a certain point in time.

Randy Majors

I began to think I would have to develop my own database to offer it as a service to the community. Until last week when I was watching an archived Hangout from

Showing historical jurisdiction boundary changesDuring part of the discussion a participant mentioned the Randy Majors website. I was not familiar with this and so I decided to check it out. Well, lo and behold, this site is the closest thing I have yet found to what I have been looking for!

You can type in a present-day place name AND a historical date (year or full date) and the site will display a map with the county boundaries at the time. In addition, it displays some information above the map (below the search bar). At first this information escaped my notice because the text is so small. However, this information is valuable.

It tells you the county name as of the date indicated as well as the full place name. Below that, in even smaller text, it provides more details such as the effective date of the jurisdictional boundary changes, and the statutory reference to the legal authorization for the change.

In my case, I have several ancestral lines (Branham and Tweddell) from western Kentucky. During the 1800s this area saw jurisdictional boundary changes on a frequent basis. I typed in Hardin, Kentucky and the year 1830. It returned the map you see to the right. At this time it was part of Calloway County.

I can change the date or simply go forward or backward by ten year increments by clicking the left and right arrows next to the date field. In 1820 Hardin was in Caldwell County. By 1850, on the other hand, Hardin was in Marshall County (where it remains today).

Historical place names

I am a strong proponent of recording the full place name in the true historical context of the event. One of the biggest advantages of this is to simply recognize where to find records of the event. I have plenty of data that needs to be cleaned up in FamilySearch to meet this standard.

silas-tweddellFor example, the recorded death place in FamilySearch for Silas Tweddell is “Hardin, Marshall, Kentucky.” However, Marshall County didn’t exist until 1842. So I would change this to “Hardin, Calloway, Kentucky.” The challenge is that FamilySearch wants to tie the place to a “standardized” place name. This is important for searching and other technical reasons. Because present-day Hardin is in Marshall County it wants to use this as a standard place name.

This is OK. I can still change “Marshall” to “Calloway.” BEFORE hitting enter or clicking the suggested standard simply click anywhere else on the screen. FamilySearch still associates this with the standard place name without overwriting the historical place name I entered.

I am excited to have been introduced to the website by DearMyrtle and Cousin Russ! I look forward to using this resource to help me in my genealogical research.

Do you have other resources you like to use to track jurisdictional boundary changes?

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  1. Reply

    Hi David,
    Thanks for your kind mention of my Historical U.S. County Boundary Maps tool!
    I took on board your comments and made the text size bigger that gives the details about the county name, etc. 🙂

    I also wanted to mention a couple of extra tools that may be less obvious for your readers:
    – First, if you want to make the map bigger, you can click the little square just above the “Go!” button and it will expand the map.
    – Second, there is a check box called “Show Research Locations” just above the map (it’s most useful to use when you are zoomed in). If you check that, you can have the locations of cemeteries, courthouses, libraries, etc. appear. You can then click the little icons on the map to see the name, address, website, etc of the place. For the cemeteries, you can also link directly to the Find A Grave listing.

    Hope these additions are useful!
    Randy Majors

    • Reply

      Thanks so much! I love that you made the text bigger. Also, thanks for the tips and tricks! I am sure my readers will appreciate it.

      I am so glad I was shown your tool – and thanks for taking the time to put it up and maintain it!

    • Reply

      Thanks so much! I love that you made the text bigger. Also, thanks for the tips and tricks! I am sure my readers will appreciate it.

      I am so glad I was shown your tool – and thanks for taking the time to put it up and maintain it!

      Also, I will be adding a permanent link to your site from my Online Resources page!

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