If you have a place name (for example, the place where an ancestor was born) but you're not sure exactly where in New York - or the world - that place is, one of the resources listed below may help you to pinpoint the location. A more exact location will enable you to find the place on a map and may help to determine potential sources for historical records. Using Maps for Genealogy, a publication of the U.S. Geological Survey, suggests many ways that maps can be used to aid genealogical research.
New York State
New York State Counties
This page has an outline map of New York, showing the county boundaries, and an alphabetical list of all counties in New York.
New York State Cities, Towns and Villages (1998)
This is an alphabetical list of cities, towns and villages in New York State.
New York State Gazetteer (1995)
This list of New York State cities, towns, villages, hamlets and boroughs was prepared by the New York State Department of Health in order to identify places that are reported on vital records. Because it includes hamlets, this is a more extensive list than the preceding resource, which only goes to the village level. (Note: This is a paper document that has been scanned and made available as a PDF. The link will open in a new window.)
New York State Map and Gazetteer: Prepared under the Supervision of J. H. French. (1860)
Since it was published more than a century ago, French's Gazetteer is used mainly for genealogical and historical research. This one volume work contains information on the geography, geology, institutions and general history of New York State, as well as a history and description of every county, city, town, village and locality in NYS at the time. (Note: The original book has been scanned and made available as a series of five PDF files. The link will open in a new window.)
Changes in Names of New York State Towns
If you're having trouble locating a place that is mentioned in a historical document, it may be because the place name has changed over time. The New York GenWeb site maintains a list of towns whose names have changed. The list includes the town's original name, its current name, and the county in which it's located. It is arranged alphabetically by the original town name.
United States (including New York)
USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) (Go directly to U.S. search page)
The U.S. Geographical Survey (USGS) maintains a database of geographic features, including cities, towns, and other populated places in the U.S. and around the world. You can enter the name of a place, find out what state and/or county it's in, and then view USGS maps of the area. You can also search this database for some natural and manmade features (e.g. rivers, mountains, churches, cemeteries). The GNIS can sometimes provide information on name changes, too, since its database includes secondary or variant names for existing places, as well as the names of many places that no longer exist.
This dataset is derived from the Census data. The gazetteer can be used to identify places to view with the Tiger Map Server and obtain 1990 census data from the Census Lookup server. Search for places by entering a name and state abbreviation (optional), or a 5-digit zip code. Note: The database does not contain unincorporated place names.
1895 U.S. Atlas
This site contains scanned images from an 1895 atlas, as well as lists of the cities and towns in each state at that time.
Alexandria Digital Library Gazetteer Server
Users can search a database of approximately four million place names for cities, towns, villages or any of a wide variety of geographic and manmade features (e.g. rivers, mountains, airports, cemetaries) and then locate the results of the search on a map. This database includes entries from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency Gazetteer and the USGS Geographic Names Information System database (both of which are also listed on this page).
Canadian Geographical Names
Canada's official geographical names Web site is maintained by the Secretariat of the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names. The database has over 350,000 entries, including all current and former official geographical names in Canada. The site also provides links to related sites for further research on geographical names.
Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names
The Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN) contains over one million place names representing approximately 912,000 places throughout the world. A record can contain one or more place names, including the vernacular and English names of the place, variant names in other languages, and historical names. The TGN includes physical features such as continents, rivers, and mountains; and political entities, such as empires, nations, states, districts, townships, cities, and neighborhoods. The TGN is not an exhaustive database; it was developed primarily for the field of art history, so it focuses mainly on places, artists, and other terms having to do with the visual arts and cultural heritage, from antiquity to the present.
Created by a Basque native, this site focuses on the minority and native language names for places. There is an index to the site, but no search capability, so users will need to know the country, ethnic group or language in order to look up a particular place name. (Note: Although this site is still available, it does not seem to have been updated since 1999.)
GEOnet Names Server
The GEOnet Names Server (GNS) provides access to the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) database of geographic features outside the U.S. Approximately 20,000 of the database's 3.5 million features are updated monthly with names information approved by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
Global Gazetteer (Version 2.1)
This is a directory of the world's cities and towns, sorted alphabetically by country and linked to a map for each town.
A variety of print resources, usually called gazetteers or geographical dictionaries, are also available for looking up place names. A selection of the gazetteers held by the New York State Library and available to onsite researchers is listed below. Please note the publication dates when using any of these reference books; some will be more appropriate than others, depending on whether you are looking for current or historical information.
The Columbia Gazetteer of the World. Cohen, Saul B. (Ed.). NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 1998.
This three-volume encyclopedia of geographic places and features includes political divisions, physical features and "special places" (e.g. national parks, historical or archeological sites, military bases, theme parks). In addition, there are many cross references for name changes and variations. Many entries include latitude and longitude coordinates. Place-names were selected on the basis of population thresholds, area size, political and administrative framework, and economic, political, or cultural significance. With approximately 160,000 entries, including 40,000 for places in the United States, this is probably the most comprehensive of the print resources. Note: Older versions (1952 and 1962) are titled: Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World.
Chambers World Gazetteer: a Geographical Dictionary. Munro, David (Ed.). NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990.
This resource is a geographical dictionary of world places, listed alphabetically. It includes information on regions, countries, cities and physical features. However, the listing is not comprehensive because only towns with populations over a certain threshold (which varies by country) are listed. There are approximately 20,000 entries, plus a section of maps.
Webster's New Geographical Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 1977.
This resource includes political entities and significant natural physical features. It focuses in particular on the United States and Canada; for these two countries, it includes all incorporated places with a population of over 2,500. There are approximately 47,000 entries and 200 maps.
Omni gazetteer of the United States of America. Abate, Frank R. (Ed.). Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1991.
This 11-volume set provides the name, location and identification for nearly 1,500,000 populated places, historic places and geographic features in the fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Territories. It includes much of the information available through the online Geographic Names Information System Web page (listed above), and names from other federal sources.