Place names in the United States are standardized by The U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), a Federal body created in 1890 and established in its present form by Public Law in 1947. In order to maintain continuity, The Board is authorized to establish and maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government. These standards are maintained in the consistent naming of places on the GNIS website.
The GNIS website is set up to query the large database and provide specific information about geographic locations in the U.S. It can yield latitude and longitude, topographic maps (connected through Topozone.com), aerial photos, alternate names and feature classes for each location. The "Feature Class" can help the user pinpoint the type of location being searched for - from schools, cemeteries and airports to bridges, tunnels and isthmuses. In Southern United States research, the GNIS can be particularly helpful in locating the nearest communities to a watercourse mentioned in a land record.
The GNIS website has also recently been remodeled and updated. With a new look and the same basic features, the website now also sports built-in search capabilities for variant names. If I am searching for the infamous Goose Creek, New Jersey, the GNIS database will automatically retrieve entries for the stream named Goose Creek, as well as the populated place known as Toms River, all in Ocean County, New Jersey.
A feature mentioned above also—connecting with other geography and mapping websites such as Topozone.com is easy to use with the GNIS. The website will bring up a link for each place searched and connect the user to such sites as Topozone.com for free topographical maps, TerraServer DRG for USGS digital topographic maps, and TerraServer DOQ for USGS aerial photographic images of many locations. Using these features can help translate latitude and longitude readings into distances between towns, or locations of bridges and cemeteries within city limits. It can even point out modern-day large roads and highways that may be useful in platting land.
The GNIS also lists the name of the USGS 7.5 minute map containing the places searched. The USGS maps showing your research area can be purchased through them at http://store.usgs.gov/ to make traveling to research locations more portable. And if you're high-tech enough that online and traditional maps are outdated? The latitude and longitude information provided on each location will guide you and your GPS (Global Positioning System) to the cemetery or farm location of your choice.
The GNIS is a goldmine of the small, the renamed, and the hard-to-find places that plague our genealogical research. Take the mystery out of your place names.
Additional information about GNIS is available on the GNIS website.