State Committee on Geographic Names

The State Committee on Geographic Names is established by Education Law within the Education Department to advise the United States Board on Geographic Names on issues relating to place names in New York. The Committee reviews proposals for new place names and maintains data on existing place names. Staff of the State Museum, State Library, State Archives, with one outside scholar serve on the Committee, with activities coordinated by the Museum. Research is often conducted to evaluate proposals for place name changes.

How do you go about changing a place name in New York?
Many of the place names attached to the geography of New York are rooted in the deepest recesses of the past, often with uncertain and ambiguous derivation. Sometimes a place was named because of the way it looked to the people who lived near it, or it may have been named after one of the earliest settlers. Names just seem to have sprung up as they were needed, and frequently historians are hard pressed to explain how or why.

But as standardized maps began to be produced that became the "official" sources of geographic information for the nation, and the world, the need arose for a standardized and equally official set of agreed on names for places and features displayed on those maps

This responsibility was placed with the United States Board on Geographic Names, a branch of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The USGS established guidelines by which they could

  • identify previously unnamed features
  • provide official recognition to names in current local usage
  • resolve conflicts in name spellings, applications, and local usage

In every state a "geographic names authority" is set up to assist the USGS in this process. The state names authority helps the review of the applications for new names or name changes.

When the application is complete, in accordance with USGS guidelines, the state names authority will review the final proposal and send a recommendation to the USGS Geographic Names Board, either supporting or not supporting the proposal. The USGS Board then places the application on their agenda for a federal-level review meeting, and based on that meeting a decision is made to adopt or deny the proposal.

In New York State, the names authority is "The New York State Committee on Geographic Names."

What is the New York State Committee on Geographic Names?
The New York State Committee on Geographic Names is established as part of the State Education Department, Office of Cultural Education. It is made up of historians, archivists, librarians, geologists, anthropologists, and geographers.

When a proposal is presented for review, this team of professional staff reviews the application and asks for additional documentation where needed. It then meets to come to agreement on the proposal and sends that decision to the federal board.

Some of the pieces of documentation which the state committee looks for include:

  • Is there an already existing name for the feature?
  • What is the historical origin of the existing name?
  • What is the historical justification for the proposed name?
  • Is the proposed name in local usage?
  • Do local leaders, residents and businesses support the proposed name?

How do I get Started?
If you wish to make an application for a name change, you should contact the USGS first:
U.S. Board on Geographic Names:

  • You should request application forms and guidelines for submitting a geographic names proposal.
  • They will send you these forms and a booklet. Read these carefully and be sure to include consultation with local historians, including town and county government historians. Include letters of support or comment from these, as well as local governmental officials, businesses, and residents.
  • Follow the online USGS instructions for submission.

Where Can I get More Information?
The USGS has placed a vast amount of very detailed information about the process of obtaining a name change, as well as about the existing place names in the country and how to find them. You can find general information, with links to pages about the policies and procedures for geographic names proposals, at the United States Board on Geographic Names. You can search for a particular place name using a free searching service of the USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS).


For more information write:
Brad L. Utter
Senior Historian/Curator
New York State Committee on Geographic Names
New York State Museum
3021 Cultural Education Center
Albany, New York 12230