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Tri-Counties Genealogy & History by Joyce M. Tice
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Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA
You Gotta Know the Territory - Genealogy, Geography, and Logic
Article - Know your PLACE
Article by Joyce M. Tice
18 MAY  2002
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You Gotta Know the Territory - The Links Between Genealogy, Geography and Logic

As the Music Man tells in the opening number of that well known musical, "You Gotta Know the Territory." This holds true not only in salesmanship, but in genealogy as well. Unless you understand the TIME and PLACE where your ancestor lived, you are in danger of making illogical assumptions, and we have all seen more than our desired share of these. Think of your people in the context of the place where they lived. Researchers who approach genealogy without a map and an understanding of the local political units, including their development through time, are like the proverbial bull in the china shop mindlessly thrashing here and there and creating chaos. Think of this bull as creating chaos and then distributing it through the Internet. That is our status today in too many cases where genealogy is concerned, widely distributed bull mess instead of the scholarship we all want our work to represent. What can we do to improve the situation and put our own research on a higher level that we and those who use our work can respect?

I have an advantage of being able to develop a local expertise for the three counties covered by my site. Having lived most of my life in or near these three counties, I know the geographic layout and the local names. Having developed this site over the past six years has added greatly to my knowledge of this area and has filled in a lot that I did not know previously. We can not all be local experts, but when you are studying an ancestor, take the time to understand the counties, townships, boroughs and other political and geographic units within the area. When I am studying people outside the area I know well, in "foreign territory" so to speak, I first try to understand the area so that I can draw sensible and logical conclusions. Sometimes a trip to the area can open huge vistas of understanding when you see how one place relates to another and travel for yourself the distances that are between them. My own experience with Ulster County NY a few years back is an example. My knowledge previously had been from the work of others and the place names, as recorded by them, made no sense and had no consistency. Conflicts abounded. Once I got there and started seeing the names of places and the political units I was able to draw it together into something that had some validity. Earlier researchers had recorded townships as villages and visa versa. It was just a hodge-podge. If you can't go there, and that is so often impossible, get a good map and, try to develop a sense of the place and the relationship between the names of places you have been encountering. I am sure you don’t want to add to the chaos of misinformation that our otherwise valuable tool, the Internet and the communication / miscommunication it gives us, produces.Too many of us are just copying the work of others and not evaluating it for reasonableness.

Common Sense Geography

One of the commonest examples of geographic disorientation I encounter thorough my site is the continual confusion people from outside our area have for Bradford Pa and Bradford County PA. Hardly a day passes that I don't get a query for Bradford PA. Bradford is a city or borough in McKean County, but people using the search engines hone in on Bradford County as represented on our Tri-County site, and think they are home. It's not the same thing and I redirect them. Conversely, I recently received a family history from a guest submitter indicating that a particular woman was born in Bradford, McKean County, PA. Her parents lived in Rutland, Tioga County PA near the border of Columbia, Bradford County PA during their childbearing years. McKean County is about three or four counties west of Bradford County, more than hundred miles away and this was the 1850s when people just did not travel a hundred miles from home in their lifetime unless they migrated west. A look at the map and an understanding of travel patterns would reveal the illogic of this conclusion. Unfortunately this misinformation has been submitted to the many databases that have no quality control and is being spewed all over as fact, believable to those who do not look any closer than the person who originally made this erroneous conclusion.

I have also seen records in the LDS database of some of my own ancestors that indicate that the children of people who were counted in every census of their married lives in Rutland, Tioga County PA had their children in Orange County NY. Does that make sense? Would a pregnant woman in the wilderness of 1850s PA/NY travel over a hundred miles of forest to deliver her children every two years or so? I think not. Let’s use some ordinary common sense before we publish our work or submit it for inclusion in public databases. The husband of this family came from a family that originated in Orange County, and a very sloppy "researcher" just jumped to some conclusions with no thought whatever in it. Worse yet, they submitted that totally wrong conclusion to a widely used database that has no quality control whatever. It is still "out there" and always will be.

Similiar Name Confusion

Another source of confusion is the common names in our area. Sullivan Township in Tioga County PA is a mere "hop, skip, and a jump" from Sullivan County PA. Tioga County NY almost touches Tioga County PA. I've had email from people completely at a loss asking whether Tioga County is in NY or PA. Answer - both. I've lived in, owned property in, and paid taxes in both Tioga Counties, so it is no mystery to me, but we can’t blame those from other areas for getting confused with such similar names. We can, however, ask them and ourselves to look at the map and evaluate what makes sense before distributing research as fact. I am sure we all make assumptions whether we know we are doing it or not, and most often we do this in an area where we have not taken the time to know the territory. New Jersey contains three or four villages called Washington. In the present day, only the zip codes and county names differentiate them. This has to be a major source of confusion for researchers not familiar with this issue. Kansas City straddles a state line. Part of it is even in Kansas. In our own area, Waverly is in Tioga County NY, and South Waverly is in Bradford County PA. Just stay alert and open minded. Take nothing for granted. Take the time to sort it out.

Counties, Towns, Townships, Villages and Boroughs - Political / Civic Units

Another problem researchers have is in understanding the political units of the area they are studying. We all understand what a state is in this country, and we understand that they all had dates of formation. Within states, we have Counties, and they too have dates of formation. Louisiana, as I understand it, calls them Parishes, instead. OK, we know what they mean. As the populations grew in the newly settled areas of the various states, counties became geographically smaller. In Pennsylvania, counties are divided into townships. New York is the same, but the subdivisions are called Towns. Thus we have Town of Southport in Chemung County NY and Wells Township in Bradford County PA bordering each other across the state line. In Pennsylvania a population center may divide itself off from its originating township and become a Borough. In New York, the Village is the official equivalent. The Borough or Village then is a separate political unit geographically within the boundaries of the town or township, but operating independently in its functions and electing its own officers. In Pennsylvania we see village markers that represent a population center that is not a separate political unit from the township. Take for example, Mainesburg in Sullivan Township, Tioga County PA. In the 1870s Mainesburg separated from Sullivan Township to become the Borough of Mainesburg. The residents expected a tax advantage to their separate political organization. In the 1890s, not having realized the anticipated advantages, Mainesburg came crawling back to the mother Sullivan Township with its tail between it legs, humbled. Presently it remains part of the political structure of Sullivan Township, but the highway marker on Route 6 refers to it as the Village of Mainesburg. This is a descriptive term in Pennsylvania and not a separate political unit as it is in New York. The point here is that Village is a political unit in New York State but not in Pennsylvania where Borough is the political unit for a small population center. The designation of City is based on population and other factors. In New York State a Village can become a City when it has a certain number of streets. To meet this requirement, one village (Don’t ask me which one just now) named each side of all of its street s with a different name so that it met the number of streets requirement. In Chemung County NY we have both the City of Elmira and the Town of Elmira, separate civic units with a common origin.

We frequently see circulating "genealogies" indicating that a person was born in, for example, Mansfield, Tioga County PA in 1785. Mansfield did not exist in 1785. Tioga County did not exist in 1785, and there were no white settlers in this area in 1785. One needs to understand the geography and the history to validate what they receive from other "researchers" and from the un-quality controlled databases that are so prevalent now.

Very often in our old tax lists, we find people listed who are not on the censuses. Once again, these can be residents of the adjoining township/county whose land overlaps the boundary. For the tax records of Sullivan Township in Tioga County PA many people were listed who were included in the Columbia Township, Bradford County census. Since they were taxed on their acreage and livestock, I have to wonder if a pasture overlapped the boundary, did they get double taxed for cows that wandered back and forth? I even have incidents where families whose farms overlapped the township borders were enumerated in both censuses. The Longwells of Sullivan whose house in 1870 was in Sullivan and the barn in Rutland were double counted. The entire family was counted in Sullivan on June 29 and in Rutland on June 30 by the same census taker whose memory must have been even shorter than mine is sometimes.

Name Changes

Not only do boundaries change over time, but individual units can change names. In Sullivan Township, Chandlersburg became Elk Run and that became (I have not bought into this yet), Bungy, for a nineteenth century joke that got out of hand and which has taken over most of the identity of this place. I am one of the few remaining holdouts on this name and still call it Elk Run. This series of name changes has given rise to the little joke about visiting the "Triple Cities," Chandlersburg, Elk Run, and Bungy. You'd have to see the place to appreciate the humor. On the other end of the size scale, another song reminds us that "even old New York was once New Amsterdam." It takes a full study of history to identify where some of these places were that seem to have vanished in the mists of time like the legendary Brigadoon.

Post Offices

Another moving target in the place naming game is the evolution of the various post offices. Tri-Counties site includes information on the trail of the formation and discontinuation of various post offices as far as we can trace it. Early on post offices were established to serve a population so that individuals did not have to travel too far for their mail. Even so, rural folks often picked up their mail at the local shopping, then called trade, village only once a week. These post offices came and went as the population shifted.  In 1903, Rural Free Delivery was established and many of the smaller post offices disappeared in favor of the larger more centralized post offices from which the rural delivery routes originated. This trend continues even today as the regional post offices postmark all the mail from the surrounding area. Thousands of early postmarks are extinct as a result.

Additionally, people may have received mail from a post office not in the same political unit where they lived. My great great grandfather, Joe Holly, whose 1880 diary appears on this site, lived in Sullivan Township, Tioga County PA. He got his mail just down the road in Austinville, Bradford County PA. That was his official address, but it did not represent at all where he lived. Census records and tax records are more useful in determining location than Post Office address now and in the past. Similarly, residents of the former North Road (Now Hulslander Road) in Sullivan Township, Tioga County PA received mail from Sylvania post office in Bradford County PA. Birth records for their children or obituary notices of their death may have given Sylvania as the place of birth or death when, in fact, it was Sullivan township, a different town, a different county. Be very careful and anlayze the data when you deal with these conflicts of place. If your subject was shown in the census in a particular place, near a boundary, and other records such as obits, say something else, think it through. Don't just believe what the newspaper tells you. In earlier times people gave birth and died at home. They did not go to the hospital as we do now, and they did not give birth or die at the post office, at least not most of the time. Even now, Sullivan Township residents near Sugar Branch Lake have a Troy address in Bradford County. If I were to die right now in my Sullivan Township house, my obit would say I died in Mansfield, eight miles from here. In 2004 a family friend died at his home in Daggett. His obit says he died in Millerton. Yes, the house now has a Millerton PO address, but Millerton is miles away. Daggett did not cease to exist when the Post Office closed there. Don't believe everything you read. Think it through.

To take this a step further, we have in this area, rural delivery routes that wind themselves across the PA-NY state line. In certain areas, people with a New York State address may live in Pennsylvania or the opposite. Be cautious. Investigate and understand.


The smallest naming unit by which our ancestor might be associated is the neighborhood. There may never have been a post office there, or even a village, but somehow a place became an identifier and people were associated with it. We see this in the neighborhood columns in the Troy Gazette Register we are now working on. Many of the neighborhood names have disappeared altogether along with the people and the buildings. They may or may not show or ever have shown on a map, but are known only locally. In the TGR we have found Fairview and Stanton's Hollow and so many more - names long gone. Here in Sullivan Township we have Chamberlain's Corners and Soper's Corners and Smith Hollow. They may have been just a crossroads, or a family settlement, but once upon a time they designated a particular place that was recognized and the name used by those who lived in the area.

As you research in the areas covered by this site, keep in mind that you are in a primarily rural area. Neighborhood may have a different meaning here than what you may think about in  the larger cities. Elmira is the largest population center in our area and is considered a small city. Towanda, the Athens-Sayre area, Troy, Mansfield, Wellsboro, are all boroughs, not cities. While the nation as a whole has become increasingly urban, this area has remained much more open and relatively low populated.

Economic Factors

Another point to consider in knowing the territory is commerce. Once a young person left the farm, where did she/he go for the first job? In earlier times they may have just gone down the road to do farm work or house work for another farm family. They may have gone to the next little trading village for a clerk's job or to the larger county center. In this area in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many young people went from the northern PA counties of Tioga and Bradford to Chemung County in NY. Elmira is populated by people from our two PA counties. This move was enormous after World War 2, but even earlier than that, major shopping may have been conducted in Elmira using the train as the conveyance, and the jobs were there. That's where the young people moved when they wanted to expand their boundaries. Look to the economic centers to understand the population moves.

Early in the nineteenth century, when the economy was almost exclusively agriculturual, and the counties were still being settled, the young people moved to the more western townships in the same county to establish their own farms, or they moved to the next county west. Look to the west.


I list the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation as a problem point in this area of preserving the old location names. In the interest of "efficiency" Pennsylvania started labeling all of its back roads some time back. I am all in favor of efficiency. I love it. I love labeling the roads. But instead of taking the old names as known by those who had lived in the area for a long time, they combined multiple road names into one. It used to be that a road might change names at each intersection. PA-DOT erased all of that and combined them, collapsing two centuries of history into a compact misrepresentation. In Sullivan Township, Gardner Hollow disappeared into Reitz Road. Robbins Hill was renamed as an extension of Scouten Hill. Strange Hill was wiped off the map and renamed Bungy Road (I already expounded on what I think of that). The legacy of Marcus Strange and his wife Hannah Burt, who owned property there a hundred and fifty years ago and whose name was on that hill for that long was thrown out like trash. Gray Valley Road became Elk Run Road. Names of people who cleared this land and left their name on it, were smudged out completely. To the researcher, those are going to be very hard to trace. To the best our ability, we do hope to develop a database over time to record some of those. That will require the local expertise of the many people in this area who know or remember the old names and who are willing to submit them to us.

Tools To Help You Know The Territory

While many of the examples I have given relate to the township I know best, the same is true throughout our three county area and the rest of the country as well. Take all these factors into consideration as you build your family histories. In additon to knowing the geographic area this site covers, you also want to understand the site itself so that you can make the best use of your time using it. The How to Use the Site page gives you that introduction orienting you to what you can expect to find and how.

Tri-Counties site is designed with place as the central factor. The Tri-County Township index is one of the primary jumping off points for exploring this site. Each of the eighty townships in our three counties has its own page with all resources related to that area included. Also there are pages for county formation, township and borough information. Every tool that can be devised to help you understand what existed when and where has been provided. Pages on Post Office history are included. Pages devoted to outdated place names are on the site. All of this is accessible from the site's Online Research Library. The search engine that links directly from the site's main page can also be used to locate place names just as easily as for locating people names. There are maps on the site, several in the Online Research Library, and one on each of the township pages. These are good for general research, but given the still limited capacity of our Internet resource, are not in the very detailed versions you may need.  Take the time to learn this territory so that your research can have credibility and be the valuable resource you always intended it to be.

The History Center on Main Street, 83 N. Main Street, Mansfield PA 16933   histcent83@gmail.com
Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA

Published On Tri-Counties Site On 18 MAY 2002
By Joyce M. Tice
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