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Domestic Names - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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Listed below are frequently asked questions about the U.S. Board on Geographic Names and geographic names data. Please see GNIS FAQs for additional information concerning Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). Communications concerning these or other questions should be addressed to gnis_manager@usgs.gov or to GNIS Manager, U.S. Geological Survey, 12201 Sunrise Valley Drive, MS 523, Reston, VA 20192-0523.

  1. Why can't I find a name in the GNIS Database?

The official form of the name might not correspond exactly to the words entered. However, the software is very flexible. Here are some guidelines.

Enter key word or words or leading letters of words in the name of the desired feature or features. (Note: The query does not search imbedded letters or ends of words.) The query returns records for all features with names containing the words or leading letters entered. If multiple words are entered, a Boolean “and” search is assumed. Words need not be contiguous in the name or in the right order.

Official Name and Variants: The query returns records for all features with the official name or variants (non-official names) matching the query, but only the official name displays in the results list. If a feature appears in the results list with a name different than the name entered, click on the name to view the feature details. The name entered will be listed among the variants.

Case: You may enter the name all lower case. Upper case letters are ignored. All appropriate names are returned regardless of case.

Diacritical Marks: Enter the name without diacritical marks. All appropriate names with and without diacritical marks are returned.

Exact Match: Check this box to search for only the exact version and spelling of the words entered. Names containing additional words are not returned. Example: “san francisco” – The search will not return “san francisco bay” or any other variation. If this box is not checked, all variations will be returned.

Exclude Variants: Check this box to return only features with the official name matching the query. Features with variants matching the query are not returned.

  1. I think I have found an error in the GNIS Database. How do I report it?

Please submit information indicating precisely what you believe is in error to GNIS Manager. The Names data experts will investigate and validate the data, enter appropriate corrections where needed, and advise you of the results.

  1. What does the Topo Map Name mean?

The field entitled “Topo Map Name” indicates the name of a USGS standard topographic map. If the map name is known and entered in this field (data may be entered in other fields also), the query will return the features that are wholly or partially located on the map (and that meet the other query parameters). Note that map names frequently are used in different states. Therefore, after entering the map name, click the “Check Map State” box. A list of States using that map name will be returned. Select the desired State from the list.

A USGS topographic map usually is named for the most prominent feature within the bounds of the map, which frequently is a community. Please note that although the features returned by the query are located on the map that may be named after a prominent community, this does not indicate that the features are “in” that community. The standard topographic maps are in most cases a 7.5 minutes by 7.5 minutes box, covering approximately 60 square miles.

  1. Can I obtain information regarding who is buried in a particular cemetery?

The GNIS is the repository for official geographic names and locative attributes (County, map name, latitude, longitude) about named entities of all types of features, including cemeteries. This database does not maintain information on individuals or their history or interments, although it often assists genealogists by locating obscure or historical churches, cemeteries, or communities. For this information, we suggest contacting the local or county office of vital statistics or the administering organization of the cemetery. You also may wish to review one of the genealogical sites such as http://www.rootsweb.com, http://www.usgenweb.com, or http://www.findagrave.com/.

  1. How can I name an unnamed natural feature?

Proposals to name an unnamed natural feature may be submitted to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names as described below. The Board is responsible by law for standardizing geographic names throughout the Federal Government, and promulgates policies governing issues such as commemorative naming, derogatory names, and names in wilderness areas. Generally the most important policy is local use and acceptance.

Please note that no natural feature (and certain manmade features) may be named for a living person. A potential honoree must have been deceased for at least five years, and must have had either a direct and long-term association with the feature, or must have made notable civic contributions.

Upon receipt of a proposal, all interested parties will be asked to comment. The Board makes decisions only after receiving recommendations from the local government, county government, the State Names Authority (in 50 States, the District of Columbia, and 2 Territories), and appropriate land management agencies. Only name proposals for natural features will be accepted (see FAQ #7 for information on administrative feature names—churches, cemeteries, schools, parks, shopping centers, etc).

A new name proposal may be submitted using the Domestic Geographic Names form (PDF version) mailed to U.S. Board on Geographic Names, U.S. Geological Survey, 12201 Sunrise Valley Drive, MS 523, Reston, VA 20192-0523. Alternatively, the online version of the form may be used. Please read the Principles, Policies, and Procedures in the Main Menu to the left before submitting a proposal. An information packet and forms can be mailed upon request. The entire process is free of charge, but will take approximately six months. For more information contact the GNIS Manager.

  1. How can I propose to change the name of a natural feature?

Proposals to change the name of a natural feature may be submitted to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names as described below. However, there must be a compelling reason. The Board is responsible by law for standardizing geographic names throughout the Federal Government, and discourages name changes unless necessary. Further, the Board states that, "changing a name merely to correct or re-establish historical usage is not in and of itself a reason to change a name."

Names evolve, and even through cartographic recording errors, become established in the local vernacular. Geographic names usually are well established on maps, other documents, and on signs. Although any approved name change will be reflected immediately in the GNIS, maps, other documents, and signs will only be changed during the normal revision cycle.

The Board on Geographic Names promulgates policies governing issues such as commemorative naming, derogatory names, and names in wilderness areas. Generally the most important policy is local use and acceptance. Please note that no natural feature (and certain manmade features) may be named for a living person. A potential honoree must have been deceased for at least five years, and must have had either a direct and long-term association with the feature or must have made notable civic contributions.

Upon receipt of a proposal, all interested parties will be asked to comment. The Board makes decisions only with recommendations from the local government, county government, the State Names Authority (in 50 States, the District of Columbia, and 2 Territories), and appropriate land management agencies. Only name proposals for natural features will be accepted (see FAQ #7 for information on administrative feature names—churches, cemeteries, schools, parks, shopping centers, etc).

A names change proposal may be submitted using the Domestic Geographic Names form (PDF version) mailed to U.S. Board on Geographic Names, U.S. Geological Survey, 12201 Sunrise Valley Drive, MS 523, Reston, VA 20192-0523. Alternatively, the online version of the form may be used. Please read the Principles, Policies, and Procedures in the Main Menu to the left before submitting a proposal, or an information packet and forms will be mailed to you upon request. The entire process is free of charge, but will take approximately six months. For more information contact the GNIS Manager.

  1. Can I add new entries for manmade and administrative features, such as churches, cemeteries, schools, shopping centers, etc.?

Suggested corrections and additions to the data are accepted from any source for review, and upon validation, will be committed to the database.

For manmade and administrative features, submit the official name of the feature, its precise location in geographic coordinates, State, county, and a bibliographic reference to GNIS Manager. The bibliographic reference is the written source such as a map, pamphlet, other document, Web site, sign, etc. in which the name is published. If a precise location is not available or submitted, the geographical coordinates will be entered as “unknown.”

Note that this procedure does not apply to natural features. See FAQs 5 and 6.

The USGS Geographic Names Project maintains an active and extensive program to add features not in the database, primarily through partnerships with Federal, State, and local agencies, and with other organizations having relevant data.

The GNIS Web-based data maintenance application allows authorized users to enter and edit feature data directly. Batch files of data also are accepted in most standard formats. Government agencies at all levels are encouraged to join the program. Other organizations and individuals will be considered on a case basis.

See the Geospatial One-Stop, Geographic Names Community for additional information concerning GNIS Web services and the data maintenance program or contact GNIS Manager.

  1. Why are some manmade and administrative features not listed?

The USGS Geographic Names Project maintains an active and extensive program to add features not in the database, primarily through partnerships with Federal, State, and local agencies, and with other organizations having relevant data.

The GNIS Web-based data maintenance application allows authorized users to enter and edit feature data directly. Batch files of data also are accepted in most standard formats. Government agencies at all levels are encouraged to join the program. Other organizations and individuals will be considered on a case basis. Suggested corrections and additions to the data are accepted from any source for review, and upon validation, will be committed to the database.

The 30-year GNIS data compilation program began in 1976 and is continuing. The first phase (1976-1982) collected names (except roads and highways) from the USGS topographic maps, but many manmade and administrative features either are not shown or not named on these maps. Between 1982 and 1984, names from other Federal sources were collected, but only about 30 percent of the known names appeared on Federal sources (for manmade features it was a far smaller percentage).

A second extensive compilation phase was begun in 1982 and continues to collect, State by State, data from official State and local sources as well as from other pertinent current and historical materials. This process was completed in 2012. (See GNIS status map). However, even for completed States and counties, the volume and quality of data varies.

While we anticipate discovering most additional entries (even historical locations) through the partnership program, there will always be those that escape detection. To submit an administrative name see FAQ #7, or if you think you have found an error see FAQ #2.

See the Geospatial One-Stop, Geographic Names Community for additional information concerning GNIS Web services and the data maintenance program or contact GNIS Manager.

  1. What datum applies to the geographic coordinates in the GNIS Database

All coordinates in the database are in NAD 83. They were converted from NAD 27 in September 2005.

  1. Do you have data I can download?

Data extracts from the Geographic Names Information System are available for download as pipe-delimited text files within a compressed (.zip) format. See the Download GNIS selection under Domestic Names in the Main Menu to the left. For each download category, a link to File Format explains the data in the file.

These files contain primary feature attributes, but do not contain all attributes. They include the official feature name (but not other names called variant names), the primary coordinates, and the primary State, county, and topographic map containing the primary coordinates. If a feature exists in more than one State, county, or on more than one map, this secondary information is displayed at the GNIS public Web site (http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=gnispq), but is not contained in these files. Customized files are available on request to GNIS Manager.

  1. Can I obtain driving directions to a feature recorded as an entry in the GNIS database?

The GNIS records the official name and locative attributes (State, County, map, latitude, and longitude) of each feature. Other information is provided, but the mission and purpose of the GNIS preclude it from providing driving directions, which requires a great deal of data and resources not available to the system.

  1. What is the most frequently occurring community (city, town, village, etc.) name in the United States?

There are no official definitions of city, town, village, hamlet, neighborhood, etc. All named entities with human habitation are classified as Populated Place, including incorporated places (20 percent of the Nation's communities), unincorporated places (the majority), housing developments not yet incorporated, and neighborhoods within incorporated places.

The most frequently occurring community name continues to vary. In the past year, it was Midway at 212 occurrences and Fairview at 202. More recently, Fairview counted 288 and Midway 256. The name Springfield often is thought to be the only community name appearing in each of the 50 States, but at last count it was in only 34. The most recent count shows Riverside with 186 instances in 46 States, only Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Oklahoma not having a community so named.

  1. Why are there no entries for caves in the GNIS Database?

Entries for these categories are in the database, but are not available at the public Web site. In response to the 1988 National Cave Management Resources Act, an Interior Department Regulation (43 CFR Subtitle A, Part 37) forbids employees from releasing information regarding the location of a cave classified as significant on Federal lands. The regulation has been extended to all caves on Federal lands that have not been so classified as, “being under consideration for such classification.”

The GNIS database does not have presently the capability or the resources to determine which caves exist on Federal lands and are administered by Federal agencies as contrasted with those on other lands. Therefore, until further notice, features classified as “cave” are not retrievable at the Web site.

Information regarding the location of caves in the GNIS must be requested in writing from the office of the Secretary of the Interior. Each request will be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. The address is U.S. Department of the Interior, Secretary of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20240.

  1. How can I acquire GNIS data?

GNIS public Web site: Directly queries the database for official geographic feature names, their locative attributes, variant names, and other data, and allows users to display, print, and download results for datasets up to 2000 records. Ability to link directly to a specific feature or query results page (see the "How do I link to an individual feature record?" and/or "How do I save a link to a pre-defined list of features?" questions of the FAQ accessible from the public query site).

The National Map Viewer: Displays the names layers from the GNIS Map Service. Check the desired layers under the Names base data layer, define an area of interest, and refresh the map for display.

GNIS ArcGIS Services (REST, SOAP, WMS, WFS): Provides direct access to the Names layers of The National Map, including display and download capabilities. For information, please go to: http://services.nationalmap.gov/ArcGIS/rest/services/geonames/MapServer.

GNIS XML Service: Provides direct query access to GNIS database by appending query parameters to the URL and returns results in XML format for processing by any user or application. The XML service is utilized by the Find Place/Names Feature Lookup utility in The National Map.  Click for more information about the XML service.

The XML web service returns feature id, official feature name, state name, county name, feature class, latitude/longitude (in both decimal degrees and degrees/minutes/seconds), cell name, and elevation (in meters).

Below are some sample URLs and brief documentation of the syntax:

1. Returns the Potomac River record:

http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/x?fname='potomac river'&state=&cnty=&cell=&ftype='stream'

2. Returns all features whose name starts with Potomac River:

http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/x?fname='potomac river'&state=&cnty=&cell=&ftype=&op=1

3. Returns all populated places (ppl) in Fairfax county, Virginia:

http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/x?fname=&state='virginia'&cnty='fairfax'&cell=&ftype='ppl'

4. Returns all schools within the specified latitude/longitude bounding box:

http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/x?fname=&state=&cnty=&cell=&ftype='school'&x1=-77.5285&y1=38.8461&x2=-77.2538&y2=39

5. Returns information for feature id 399:

http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/x?fid=399

Parameters:

    • fname = feature name
    • state = state name
    • cnty = county name
    • cell = USGS standard topographic map name
    • ftype = feature type (now called feature class) - complete list at: http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=gnispq:8
    • x1 = west longitude
    • y1 = south latitude
    • x2 = east longitude
    • y2 = north latitude
    • fid = feature id
    • op = if no value is specified or this parameter is excluded, then no wildcard is appended to feature name and query results are based on an exact match with the feature name specified; if set to 1 (see example #2 above), then a wildcard is automatically appended to end of feature name specified
    • opv = if no value is specified or this parameter is excluded, then only the official feature name will be returned in the query results; if set to 1, then the official and variant feature names will be returned in the query results


Notes:

    • Parameter values are not case sensitive.
    • Latitudes/longitudes should be entered in decimal degrees and represent a bounding box area of interest.
    • URL encoded wildcards are supported by some parameters. However, if not used properly, they will cause a drain on system resources. If you will be developing any application that adds wildcards, please contact us first. Basically, if you will be prepending a wildcard to the feature name, then please ensure that at least one other parameter is also populated.

GNIS Download Files: Data extract files for States and territories are available for download. See the Download GNIS selection under Domestic Names in the Main Menu to the left. Four topical extracts of the data base also are available: the U.S. Populated Places File lists information about all communities throughout the United States described in the database; the U.S. Concise File lists information about major physical and cultural features throughout the United States; the Historical Features File lists information about features that are no longer in existence; and the Antarctica File contains entries throughout the continent of Antarctica as approved for use on United States Government products. Visit the download page and read the information available on that page and by clicking the "File Format" links for more information.

GNIS Customized Files: Will be provided if feasible upon request to GNIS Manager.

  1. How many counties are there in the United States?

There are 3,143 counties and county equivalents in the 50 States and the District of Columbia. They are categorized as follows:

3,007 entities named "County"
12 Boroughs, 4 City and Boroughs, 2 Municipalities, and 11 Census Areas (for areas not organized into Boroughs by the State) in Alaska
64 Parishes in Louisiana
42 Independent Cities (1 in Maryland, 1 in Missouri, 1 in Nevada, and the remainder in Virginia)
1 District - the Federal District or District of Columbia.

This does not include Commonwealths and territories with what are generally county equivalents, which are as follows:

Puerto Rico - 78 Municipios
U.S. Virgin Islands - 3 Islands
Guam - 1 Territory
Northern Mariana Islands - 4 Municipalities
American Samoa - 3 Districts and 2 Islands

  1. How accurate is the elevation data in the GNIS Database? How was it measured?

The elevation data in GNIS are not official.
Only the geographic name and locative attributes are official.

The elevation data are from the National Elevation Dataset of the U.S. Geological Survey for the primary location of the feature (Coordinates Sequence = 1 in the Feature Detail Report).

The Primary coordinate values for communities are taken at the center of the "original" community meaning the city hall, main post office, main intersection, etc. For other areal features, coordinates are taken at the approximate center, and for reservoirs at the dam. The primary coordinates for features classified as summit (all uplifted features), are recorded at the highest point and for linear features (stream, valley, and arroyo) at the mouth.

The elevation figures in the GNIS are not official and do not represent precisely measured or surveyed values. The data are extracted from digital elevation models of the National Elevation Dataset for the given coordinates and might differ from elevations cited in other sources, including those published on USGS topographic maps. Published map data represent precisely surveyed points that often are marked by a benchmark or triangle on the map and a benchmark seal physically anchored into the ground at the site.

The variances between the GNIS elevation data and other sources generally arise from acceptable tolerances and will be most evident for features such as summits, where precision is of more concern, and where the local relief (rate of change of elevation) is more prominent. When the elevation figure is of particular note, for example the highest point in the State, then the actual elevation is recorded in the description field of the feature.

If the elevation figure for a particular feature seems significantly inaccurate, the feature coordinates might need adjusting and/or the elevation model data for those coordinates are not correct. For most purposes of general information, the elevation figures are sufficiently accurate. Efforts are continuously being made to improve the accuracy of both GNIS and NED data, the results of which will be reflected at this site.

  1. What is the difference between “mountain,” “hill,” and “peak”; “lake” and “pond”; or “river” and “creek”?

There are no official definitions for generic terms as applied to geographic features. Such definitions as exist derive from the particular needs and applications of organizations using them. The GNIS database utilizes 63 broad categories of feature types originally defined solely to facilitate retrieval of entries with similar characteristics from the database.

These categories generally accord with dictionary definitions, but not always or in all respects. The differences are thematic and highly perceptive. For example, a lake is classified in the GNIS as a “natural body of inland water,” a definition that may not apply in other contexts. We have found 54 other generic terms with characteristics similar to a lake, and all are classified as lake, including features called ponds. It might be generally agreed that a pond is smaller than a lake, but even this is not always true.

All “linear flowing bodies of water” are classified as streams in the GNIS. At least 121 other generic terms fit this broad category, including creeks and rivers. Observers might contend that a creek must flow into a river, but such hierarchies do not exist in the Nation's namescape. Near the USGS offices in Northern Virginia, Little River flows into Goose Creek. Many controversies exist, such as mountain and hill, which we call “summit” along with 194 generic terms with similar characteristics. Cities, towns and other entities with human habitation are classified as populated places.

The British Ordnance Survey once defined a mountain as having 1,000 feet of elevation and less was a hill, but the distinction was abandoned sometime in the 1920's. There was even a movie with this as its theme in the late 1990's - The Englishman That Went Up a Hill and Down a Mountain. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names once stated that the difference between a hill and a mountain in the U.S. was 1,000 feet of local relief, but even this was abandoned in the early 1970's. Broad agreement on such questions is essentially impossible, which is why there are no official feature classification standards.

  1. I have heard that the use of the apostrophe “s”, such as Pike’s Peak (Pikes Peak in the database) to show possession is not allowed in geographic names, so why are there many such entries in the GNIS Database?

Since its inception in 1890, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has discouraged the use of the possessive form—the genitive apostrophe and the “s”. The possessive form using an “s” is allowed, but the apostrophe is almost always removed. The Board's archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy.

However, there are many names in the GNIS database that do carry the genitive apostrophe, because the Board chooses not to apply its policies to some types of features. Although the legal authority of the Board includes all named entities except Federal Buildings, certain categories—broadly determined to be “administrative”—are best left to the organization that administers them. Examples include schools, churches, cemeteries, hospitals, airports, shopping centers, etc. The Board promulgates the names, but leaves issues such as the use of the genitive or possessive apostrophe to the data owners.

Myths attempting to explain the policy include the idea that the apostrophe looks too much like a rock in water when printed on a map, and is therefore a hazard, or that in the days of “stick–up type” for maps, the apostrophe would become lost and create confusion. The probable explanation is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features because, “ownership of a feature is not in and of itself a reason to name a feature or change its name.”

Since 1890, only five Board decisions have allowed the genitive apostrophe for natural features. These are: Martha's Vineyard (1933) after an extensive local campaign; Ike's Point in New Jersey (1944) because “it would be unrecognizable otherwise”; John E's Pond in Rhode Island (1963) because otherwise it would be confused as John S Pond (note the lack of the use of a period, which is also discouraged); and Carlos Elmer's Joshua View (1995 at the specific request of the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names because, “otherwise three apparently given names in succession would dilute the meaning,” that is, Joshua refers to a stand of trees. Clark’s Mountain in Oregon (2002) was approved at the request of the Oregon Board to correspond with the personal references of Lewis and Clark.

  1. Does the GNIS Database contain entries for geographic features that are historical?

Yes, GNIS actively seeks names of features that no longer exist. There are more than 100,000 such entries in the database now. To search for them, type the word “(historical)” (along with other name words if desired) in the name field. It is advisable to narrow the search further by selecting State, County, and/or Feature Class. For performance reasons, the query returns only results sets less than 2000 records.

The database also contains many historical names for features that still exist, which are termed variant names. Each geographic feature may have only one official name, but may list numerous variants. The feature query returns all features with the official name or variants matching the query, but only the official name displays in the results list. If a feature appears in the results list with a name different than the name entered, click on the name to view the feature details. The name entered will be listed among the variants. If you do not wish to query by variant names, click the Exclude Variant box under the Name field in the query page. Click the title of the Feature Name field for additional information.

  1. What does the classification “historical” mean?

The term “historical” as used in the GNIS means specifically and only that the feature no longer exists on the landscape. It has no reference to age, size, condition, extent of habitation, type of use, or any other factor. For example, a ghost town is not historical, only abandoned as might be noted in the historical notes field. Most historical features are (or were) man-made, but also can be natural features such as shoals that are washed away by a storm or a hill leveled by mining activity.

  1. What is a variant name?

A variant is any other name by which a feature is or was known. Such names can be historical or no longer used, or can be in use, but less widespread. Only one official feature name is allowed for Federal usage. There are no exceptions to this rule.

  1. What is the longest community name in the United States?

The following list is for names of communities only, and does not represent the longest name in the database.

These are the longest community names with a hyphen or "-" in the name and total number of characters.

    • Winchester-on-the-Severn, MD (24)
    • Linstead-on-the-Severn, MD (22)
    • Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, FL (21)
    • Vermillion-on-the-Lake, OH (21)
    • Wymberly-on-the-March, GA (21)
    • Kentwood-in-the-Pines, CA (21)

These are the longest community names without a hyphen or "-" in the name and total number of characters.

    • Mooselookmeguntic, ME (17)
    • Kleinfeltersville, PA (17)
    • Chickasawhatchee, GA (16)
    • Chancellorsville, VA (16)
    • Eichelbergertown, PA (16)

The longest name in the database at present with 94 characters is (blanks are valid characters):

    • University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute on Narragansett Bay Conference and Visitor Center in Rhode Island

  1. How are U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps named?

Topographic maps published by the U.S. Geological Survey generally are named for the most centrally located and/or well-known or largest community named on the map. Note that the largest, most well known community may not be centrally located. The name may be scale dependent, that is, the smaller the scale, the larger the area shown, and therefore, the more named features available to be selected for the map name.

To the extent possible, names are selected for communities that are wholly located within the map. If the community for which the map should be named falls on two or more maps, a directional term might be used such as East and West. An example is Washington East and Washington West, D.C.

If the map contains no communities or they are very rural, small, and scattered, it can be named for the most, prominent and centrally located well-known physical or natural feature such as a mountain. As with communities, the feature should be wholly located on the map.

Naming maps for linear features such as streams is generally avoided because such features usually pass through maps or meander on and off the maps. Occasionally, a map area is so devoid of named topography that a directional might be used, as in adding NW or SE to the name of an adjacent map, or even using the map name from a smaller scale series and applying the directional term.

  1. I need to know the official names and definitions (extents) of regions. For example, what is “the Midwest,” “the South,” etc?

No official designations exist for regions at any level of government. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which is responsible by law for standardizing geographic name usage throughout the Federal government, is often asked for official names and boundaries of regions, but does not and cannot provide them.

Regions are application driven and highly susceptible to perception. Individuals might agree on the core of a region, but agreement deteriorates rapidly outward from that core. The criteria or application would have to be defined, such as physiographic (this would include parts of States, but there is more than one system); political (definite disagreement based upon perception); cultural (unlimited variables); and other applications.

Geographers apply four generic requirements for a region to be formed: area, boundary (or transition zone), at least one factor of homogeneity or sameness, and a process to drive the region or to keep it functioning as a region. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has taken the same approach. Regional definitions applied by any organization reflect their particular needs or application, not a government standard.

  1. What constitutes the United States, what are the official definitions?

Geographically, and as a general reference, the United States (short form of the official name, United States of America) includes all areas considered under the sovereignty of the United States, but does not include leased areas.

On May 14, 1959, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names issued the following definitions based partially on the reference in the Alaska Omnibus Bill, which defined the Continental United States as “the 49 States on the North American Continent and the District of Columbia...” The Board reaffirmed these definitions on May 13, 1999.

United States: The 50 States and the District of Columbia.

Continental United States: The 49 States (including Alaska, excluding Hawaii) located on the continent of North America, and the District of Columbia.

Conterminous United States: The 48 States and the District of Columbia, that is, the United States prior to January 3, 1959 (Alaska Statehood) wholly filling an unbroken block of territory and excluding Alaska and Hawaii. Although the official reference applies the term “conterminous,” many use the word “contiguous,” which is almost synonymous and better known.

  1. What are the territories of the United States?

Several categories with different meanings and requirements fall under the jurisdiction of the United States and are contained in the GNIS data.

States and DC
50 States plus the Federal District known as District of Columbia

Commonwealths
Puerto Rico (Caribbean)
Northern Marianas Islands (Pacific)
            (former Trust Territory of the United Nations elected by plebiscite to join the U.S.)

Territories (various types)
Guam (Pacific)
            (physically part of the Marianas Islands but politically separate)
American Samoa (Pacific)
U.S. Virgin Islands (Caribbean)
            (uses “U.S.” in name to distinguish from neighboring British Virgin Islands)

Miscellaneous Insular or Outlying Areas - No permanent population. Periodically inhabited by military personnel or scientists, otherwise uninhabited.

Baker Island (Pacific)
Howland Island (Pacific)
Jarvis Island (Pacific)
Palmyra Atoll (an atoll is a coral reef) (Pacific)
Johnston Island (Pacific)
Kingman Reef (Pacific)
Midway Islands (Pacific)
Wake Island (Pacific)
Navassa Island (Caribbean)

Freely Associated States – The word “State” here is used in the international sense as an independent country with the exception that the United States is responsible for their defense.

Federated States of Micronesia (Pacific)
            (Former United Nations Trust Territory elected by plebiscite to become "independent.")
Republic of the Marshall Islands (Pacific)
            (Former United Nations Trust Territory elected by plebiscite to become "independent.")
Republic of Palau (Pacific)
            (Former portion of a United Nations Trust Territory elected by plebiscite to become "independent.")

Note: Corn Islands and Swan Islands were formerly U.S. but were recently ceded to Nicaragua and Honduras respectively. Also, Serrana Bank and Roncador Bank were ceded by the U.S. to Colombia. All of these are in the Caribbean.

For more information, contact the Office of Insular Affairs at the Interior Department's Web page at: http://www.doi.gov.

  1. Why are there no ZIP Codes in the GNIS Database?

The GNIS contains named communities, both incorporated and unincorporated, but these communities do not necessarily correspond to ZIP Code areas. ZIP Codes are unofficial entities developed and maintained by the U.S. Postal Service solely for the purpose of delivering mail. It is not within the mission, purpose, or resources of the GNIS to maintain ZIP Code information.

ZIP Code areas are named (unless there is duplication) for the most prominent community in it or which it serves. Numerous ZIP Code areas contain multiple named communities within them, particularly in rural areas, and in urban regions, single large communities encompass multiple ZIP Codes. ZIP Code and community boundaries frequently do not correspond or correspond only roughly. Also, many communities for which the ZIP Code area is named are not incorporated, which means they do not have legal boundaries.

Therefore, the ZIP Code boundary in no way indicates a legal “footprint” of a named community, is not official for purposes other than delivering mail, and changes periodically. For additional information concerning ZIP codes, please contact the Postal Service.

  1. All of the coordinates (latitude and longitude) seem incorrect. What is the problem?

One might confuse the difference between degrees/minutes/seconds and Decimal Degrees. To convert from decimal degrees to degrees/minutes/seconds with 45.63248 as an example:

      1. Subtract 45, leaving only the decimal .63248. Keep 45 for later reference.
      2. Multiply by 60, to obtain 37.94880 – 37 is the number of minutes; 37 then will follow 45 degrees.
      3. Subtract 37 to leave only .94880.
      4. Multiply by 60 once again to obtain 56.92800, and round to 57, which represents the seconds.

This yields 45 degrees, 37 minutes, 57 seconds.

To convert from degrees-minutes-seconds to decimal degrees using 45 degrees, 37 minutes, 57 seconds as an example:

      1. Begin with 57 seconds and divide by 60 to obtain .95000.
      2. Add the 37 minutes to yield 37.95000.
      3. Divide by 60 once again to obtain .63250.
      4. Add the 45 degrees to obtain 45.63250.

Notice that rounding less than one-tenth of a second changes the conversion by .00002 degrees.

  1. How often is the GNIS Database updated?

Federal, State, local, and non-governmental data partners submit new features and edit existing features continuously in the GNIS database. Changes, possibly consisting of hundreds to thousands of records per month, are validated by the staff and made available at the Web site and in the Web services.

The download files are updated approximately every two months. The date of the last update is displayed on the download page. States that are currently under contract for extensive data compilation could have very large updates performed monthly or quarterly (see tan States on the status map).

The Geographic Names Information System Web-based data maintenance application allows authorized users to enter and edit feature data directly. Batch files of data also are accepted in most standard formats. Government agencies at all levels are encouraged to join the GNIS data maintenance program. Other organizations and individuals will be considered on a case basis.

Suggested corrections and additions to the data are accepted from any source for review, and upon validation, will be committed to the database. See the Geospatial One-Stop, Geographic Names Community for additional information concerning GNIS Web services and the data maintenance program or contact GNIS Manager.

  1. Why do I have character display problems when looking at some of the text file downloads?

The GNIS data is maintained in the character set AL32/UTF8, specifically to accommodate native special characters. We support names expressed in any language in the Roman alphabet. Some software settings might not display these characters correctly. Please consider the following steps. See the Unicode Display Problems, Unicode Consortium website for additional information concerning Unicode character display problems.

If you need further help, you can follow the following steps In Windows XP (apply similar steps in other operating systems):

1) Right Click on your Desktop's My computer Icon -> Select 'Properties' -> Under the 'Advanced tab', click on 'Environment Variables' -> Under the 'System Variables', click on 'New' and set: Variable Name: NLS_LANG Variable Value: AMERICAN_AMERICA.AL32UTF8

2) (This part only pertains to those using an Oracle database) - Under 'Start', select 'Run...' and open 'regedit, click 'OK'. Go under My Computer -> HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE -> Software -> Click on 'ORACLE' directory to select it. Then find and double click on 'NLS_LANG'. Enter 'AMERICAN_AMERICA.AL32UTF8' as the value in the dialog box.

The Aleut name from Alaska contains a special writing mark, a circumflex, over the character "x" that is not displayed correctly in Internet Explorer, using IE default font settings, because certain American Indian - Alaskan Native characters have not been added to all IE-specific Unicode character sets. It is expected that these characters will be added in the future and when they are, the name will display correctly. As a work around, you can change Internet Explorer's font settings as follows: 1) in Internet Explorer, click the "Tools" drop-down menu near top of the web browser window, 2) click "Internet Options", 3) on the "General" tab, click the "Fonts" button in the "Appearance" section, 4) change the "Webpage font" in the list on the left to "Arial Unicode MS" (make sure "Language script" is set to "Latin based"), then click the "OK" button, 5) on the same tab, click the "Accessibility" button in the "Appearance" section, 6) check the box next to "Ignore font styles specified on webpages", then click the "OK" button, and 7) click the "OK" button again. The name should now display correctly. Other Browsers do not have this problem. See http://unicode.org/faq/char_combmark.html for more information about combining diacritical marks.

If you are still having problems with Alaska native names in Windows XP, an additional language file can be loaded with the needed characters:
1) Control Panel->Regional and Language Options->Languages tab->Supplemental language support" area.

2) Switch on the 1st check box, You will get this dialog: "You chose to install the Arabic, Georgian, Hebrew, Indic, Thai, and Vietnamese language files. This will require 10 MB or more of available disk space..." Click OK to dismiss the dialog screen.

3) Switch on the 2nd check box, you will get this dialog: "You chose to install the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Language files. This will require 230 MB or more of available disk space..." Click OK to dismiss the dialog screen.

4) Click on 'Apply' on the original window: Language Options->Language tab
You will get this message: "Please insert the Compact Disc labeled 'Windows XP Professional CD-ROM' into your CD-ROM drive (D:) and then click OK. You can also click OK if you want files to be copied from an alternate location, such as a floppy disk or a network server." You will need Windows Install CD or copy it from your internal network if available.

If you still have questions about the above steps, please contact GNIS Manager .

  1. What is the difference between features classified as Populated Place and those classified as Civil? Why does my community have two records or entries, one classified as Populated Place and the other classified as Civil?

An entry with Feature Class = Populated Place represents a named community with a permanent human population, usually not incorporated and with no legal boundaries, ranging from rural clustered buildings to large cities and every size in between; includes metropolitan areas, housing subdivisions, developments, modular home communities, and named neighborhoods (village, town, settlement, hamlet, trailer park, etc.). The boundaries of most communities classified as Populated Place are subjective and cannot be determined.

A community with Feature Class = Civil represents a political division formed for administrative purposes with legally defined boundaries (borough, county, incorporated place, municipio, parish, town, township).

(The Civil feature class does not include named residential neighborhoods, developments, etc. that are based on ownership of plots of land and therefore will have defined boundaries. These features are not considered political entities; they are classified as Populated Places.)

A small percentage of communities classified as Populated Place will have a corresponding political entity classified as Civil. In these cases, the entry classified as Populated Place represents the perceived metropolitan area usually extending beyond the legal boundaries of the incorporated community classified as Civil.

The feature classified as Populated Place and a corresponding entry classified as Civil are separate and distinct entities, as well as separate records (entries) in the dataset, each with a unique feature identifier. The two records have no direct relationship in the dataset except that they might have the same Census Code.

The two records usually, but not always, will have the same or similar names. The name of the political entity classified as Civil will include generic terms such as “City of…,” “Town of…,” etc. The name of the entry classified as Populated Place will not include such generic terms and is referred to as the short form. Example: Civil Class record = City of Denver, Populated Place = Denver.

Frequently these distinctions are not visible and are not common knowledge locally, and can be confusing, but they are necessary to identify properly and classify such communities for governmental purposes. The question whether one lives “in” a particular community depends on these definitions.

If the reference is to a community classified as Civil, which by definition has legal boundaries, that question can be answered with accuracy. If the reference is to a community classified as Populated Place, which in most cases will not have legal boundaries, the answer is subjective.

(It also is common for some to answer this question based on postal address and zip code, which have no direct relationship to either an entry classified as Civil or an entry classified as Populated Place (except perhaps a common or similar name), and therefore can be deceiving. See FAQ question #27 above concerning ZIP Codes.)

Most communities are not legally incorporated and therefore will have only one entry, which will be classified as Populated Place. Application of various community terms (city, town, village, settlement, hamlet, etc.) is determined by local usage. There are no standard lists of, definitions of, or rules for applying them, and there are no implied hierarchies among the terms: X Town might have a larger population and greater area than Y City.

The dataset contains numerous entries for communities within communities of all sizes, but does not establish hierarchical relationships among them; such relationships are beyond the scope and mission of the dataset.



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