U.S. Board on Geographic Names

How Do I?

Listed below are some of the questions received by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) staff regarding geographic names data and the proposal process. Please see the GNIS FAQs in the search application for additional information regarding the Geographic Names Information System. If you have further questions, please send them to BGNEXEC@usgs.gov or gnis_manager@usgs.gov.

PROPOSE OR CHANGE A NAME IN THE UNITED STATES AND TERRITORIES

1. How can I name an unnamed natural feature?

A proposal to name an unnamed natural geographic feature may be submitted to the BGN.  The BGN is responsible by law for standardizing geographic names throughout the Federal Government, and it has developed policies regarding issues such as commemorative naming, derogatory or offensive names, commercial names, duplicate names, names in wilderness areas, and Tribal geographic names. 

Generally, the most important policy is local use and acceptance.  Before submitting a proposal, please read the BGN’s Principles, Policies, and Procedures

Please note that no natural feature may be named for, or construed to be named for, a living person.  A potential honoree(s) must have been deceased for at least five years, and must have had either a direct and long-term association with the feature or have made notable civic contributions.  Any proposal for a commemorative name must identify the intended honoree(s), including his/her full name, birth and death dates, and a short biography. 

The BGN will not approve any new names in federally designated wilderness areas unless the proponent can demonstrate why an exception is warranted. 

Names that could be construed to promote a commercial product or enterprise will usually be rejected.

Upon receipt of a proposal and after an initial review, a case brief will be prepared and added to the next Quarterly Review List.  The BGN staff will then ask all interested parties to comment on the matter.  The BGN makes decisions only after receiving recommendations from the local and county governments, the State Names Authority (see Council of Geographic Names Authorities), and appropriate land management agencies.  Tribal governments will also be given an opportunity to provide input.  Only name proposals for natural features will be accepted.  To learn about the BGN’s procedures regarding man-made (“administrative”) features, please see Questions 12 and 13 under GEOGRAPHIC NAMES INFORMATION SYSTEM (GNIS) below.

A new name proposal can be submitted online or by printing and completing a Domestic Geographic Name Proposal form (PDF version).  PLEASE NOTE: as long as the BGN’s offices are closed due to the ongoing pandemic, anything submitted by U.S. Mail will be significantly delayed.   If you must submit correspondence by mail (to U.S. Board on Geographic Names, U.S. Geological Survey, 12201 Sunrise Valley Drive, MS 523, Reston, VA 20192-0523), please let us know with an email to BGNEXEC@usgs.gov, or by leaving a message at (703) 648-4550. 

An information packet and proposal form can also be provided upon request.

The entire process is free of charge but will take at least six months.  For more information contact the BGN Staff.

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

Proposals to change a name or spelling, or to correct the location of a name for a natural feature, may be submitted to the BGN. However, there must be a compelling reason and the BGN discourages name changes unless necessary.  The BGN prefers not to be proactive in the matter of changing existing names but will consider proposals submitted by any interested individual or organization. Further, the BGN 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." The BGN will consider proposals to change names considered derogatory or offensive. As with any name change, there must be a compelling reason and evidence of support for the change.

The BGN recognizes that names and their meanings evolve, and words that appeared on maps a century or even a few decades ago may no longer be acceptable today.  The proponent of a change should indicate in the application why the existing name is considered offensive.  Once named, a geographic feature can never be “unnamed”, only changed to another name.  Geographic names are very often well-established on maps, documents, signs and on websites, and to remove them without a compelling reason may lead to confusion.

Individuals or organizations that wish to propose a change to a name, including those considered derogatory or offensive, should make every effort to research the history of the existing name, and wherever possible, provide a replacement that retains its history or geography.  Published histories and local historical societies can be valuable resources for this information.  If it can be determined that the name referred to an early settler, or owner or inhabitant of the property, or to an event or incident that happened at that location, the name should reflect that history; such names are preferred over ones that have no significance to the local community, and as such are more likely to be accepted and used.

As with new name proposals the most important policy is local use and acceptance.  No natural feature may be named (or renamed) for, or construed to 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 have made notable civic contributions.  The BGN will very likely not approve a change to an existing commemorative name, even if the original honoree is no longer associated with the feature or the area; to do so may be considered a disservice to the memory of that person or family.

The proponent of a name change should also make an effort to solicit local opinions, such as from present-day residents of the area, local organizations and historical and genealogical societies, and from the appropriate local, town, city, and/or county government(s).

Before submitting a proposal, please read the BGN’s Principles, Policies, and Procedures.  An information packet and proposal form can also be provided upon request.

A name change proposal can be submitted online or by printing and completing a Domestic Geographic Name Proposal form (PDF version).  PLEASE NOTE: as long as the BGN’s offices are closed due to the ongoing pandemic, anything submitted by U.S. Mail will be significantly delayed.  If you must submit correspondence by mail (to U.S. Board on Geographic Names, U.S. Geological Survey, 12201 Sunrise Valley Drive, MS 523, Reston, VA 20192-0523), please let us know with an email to BGNEXEC@usgs.gov, or by leaving a message at (703) 648-4550. 

Upon receipt of a proposal and after an initial review, a case brief will be prepared and added to the next Quarterly Review List.  The BGN staff will then ask all interested parties to comment on the matter.  The BGN makes decisions only after receiving recommendations from the local and county governments, the State Names Authority (in 50 States, the District of Columbia, and 2 Territories; see Council of Geographic Names Authorities), and appropriate land management agencies.  Tribal governments will also be given an opportunity to provide input.  Only name change proposals for natural features will be accepted. To learn about the BGN’s procedures regarding man-made (“administrative”) features, please see Questions 12 and 13 under GEOGRAPHIC NAMES INFORMATION SYSTEM (GNIS) below.

Although any approved name change will be reflected immediately in the GNIS (the BGN’s official names database), maps and other products will only be updated during the normal revision cycle.

The entire process is free of charge but will take at least six months.  For more information contact the BGN Staff.

3. How does the BGN address geographic names of interest to American Indian Tribes?

The Federal Government’s unique relationship with Tribes is embodied in the U.S. Constitution, treaties, court decisions, Federal statutes, and Executive orders.  As such, the BGN honors the government-to-government relationships that exist between Tribes and the Federal Government.  The BGN acknowledges the rights of Tribes to self-governance and to exercise inherent sovereign powers over their Tribal lands.

For geographic features located entirely on Tribal Trust lands, the BGN will defer to the Tribal government to determine the name to be used by the Federal Government; whether a new (unrecorded) name or a name change, no formal BGN decision is required.  Tribal governments are encouraged to research and provide to the BGN names that may have cultural or historical significance to the Tribe, and which they wish to be made official for Federal use, including those in their indigenous languages.  The BGN’s Policy on Tribal Geographic Names provides guidance on when an alternate but equivalent form of the official name might be appropriate.

For geographic features located partly on Tribal Trust lands or entirely outside Tribal Trust lands, the BGN will inform federal recognized Tribes that all new proposals (new names and name changes) are available for review via a link at the BGN’s website to each new Quarterly Review List.  Tribes are invited to comment on any of the proposals in which they have an interest.  The recommendations of Tribal governments are considered along with all other opinions and evidence submitted regarding the matter.

4. Why does the geographic naming or renaming process seem to take so long?

The process of applying a new name to an unnamed feature, or to change an existing name, spelling, or location may seem lengthy, but there are many factors that must be considered before the BGN can render a decision on a proposal. 

Upon receipt of a proposal and assuming the application includes the necessary details, the BGN staff will conduct a thorough review before preparing a case brief (summary).  For a new name, the staff will verify that the geographic feature in question is officially unnamed, while for name changes, they will research the history of the existing name and the reason and appropriateness of the proposed replacement.  This may require further communication with the proponent or other interested parties.

Once the case brief is completed, it is added to the next Quarterly Review List; depending on the timing of the submission, the Review List may be published a few days or up to three months later.  Because local opinion is so important, the BGN staff will then solicit recommendations from local, town, city and/or county governments; State Geographic Names Authorities (“SNAs”); Federal land management agencies (if relevant); and federally recognized American Indian Tribes.  The proponent is encouraged to seek input from other interested parties.  

Many local governments do not respond immediately to requests for comment, and due to other priorities often need reminders.  SNAs typically meet only as needed, or on a pre-determined schedule, sometimes just one to three times a year.  SNAs may also wish to conduct their own outreach, and (if relevant) are expected to solicit input from State agencies with an interest in the matter.  Federal land management agencies often have other more pressing matters and must also consult with their local or regional offices before providing a recommendation to the BGN.  Tribal governments are given 60 days, upon release of the Quarterly Review List, to comment on any name in which they have any interest, and upon request, will be given additional time to respond.  On occasion, linguistic and anthropological expertise may be needed.

With approximately 200-250 proposals pending at any time and a limited staff, new proposals are processed in the order received.  The staff is frequently asked to respond to inquiries from the general public; local, State, Federal, and Tribal governments; the media; and other interested organizations regarding the (re)naming process, and to research the history and application of existing names. 

The BGN’s Action List lists the status of all pending proposals (“review listed”), along with all decisions rendered by the BGN during the previous 12 months.  The Quarterly Review List number is included on the list, and can be used to locate the case summary.

The BGN’s Domestic Names Committee meets monthly and as soon as all parties identified above have had an opportunity to provide input, the proposal is added to the docket for the following month’s meeting for discussion and a decision.  Once a decision is rendered, the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is updated within approximately 24-72 hours, and all parties are notified of the decision within approximately two weeks.

 

GEOGRAPHIC NAMES INFORMATION SYSTEM (GNIS):

Click here to search the GNIS database.

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. Here are some guidelines when searching GNIS.

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.

2. 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.

3. What does the classification "historical" mean?

The term “historical” as used in the GNIS means that the feature no longer exists on the landscape or no longer serves its original function. 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. Another example may be a school that is now a private residence.

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.

As of October 1, 2014, the maintenance of administrative or manmade features is suspended, including adding or identifying such features as historical. 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.

4. What does the Topo Map Name mean? 

The GNIS 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.

5. 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.

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

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.

7. What is the difference between "mountain", "hill", and "peak" or "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.

Click here to view GNIS feature categories.

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 BGN 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.

8. 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. 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 such as, borough, county, incorporated place, municipio, parish, town, or township.

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 GNIS question #16 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.

9. What datum applies to the geographic coordinates in GNIS?

All coordinates in the GNIS are in NAD83. The coordinates were converted from NAD27 in September 2005.

10. 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.

11. How accurate is the elevation data in GNIS? 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 3D Elevation Program (3DEP) 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, ridge, and range (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 the 3DEP 1/3 arc-second layer 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 3DEP data, the results of which will be reflected at this site.

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

The 30-year GNIS data compilation program began in two major phases in 1976. 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 continued to collect, State by State, data from official State and local sources as well as from other pertinent current and historical materials. Systematic State by State collection was completed in 2012, though additions and updates to natural features and populated places continue. However, even for completed States and counties, the volume and quality of data varies with regard to manmade and administrative features.

Effective October 1, 2014: As a result of reprioritized budgets and resources, the decision has been made to suspend the maintenance of some administrative (i.e. cultural or manmade) feature names in The National Map and to discontinue the maintenance of all administrative names through the GNIS public interface. The features that will continue to be maintained in The National Map will be updated in GNIS on a periodic revision cycle through submissions from authoritative sources or based on input from volunteers through The National Map Corps.

If you are interested in participating in The National Map Corps, which "encourages citizens to collect structures data by adding new features, removing obsolete points, and correcting existing data for The National Map," please visit The National Map Corps website. To identify the administrative features to be maintained through The National Map Corps program, click the question mark on the left side of the page, then click Structures List.

If you have further questions, please visit The National Map.

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

The short answer is no, not directly through GNIS. 

Effective October 1, 2014: As a result of reprioritized budgets and resources, the decision has been made to suspend the maintenance of some administrative (i.e. cultural or manmade) feature names in The National Map and to discontinue the maintenance of all administrative names through the GNIS public interface. The features that will continue to be maintained in The National Map will be updated in GNIS on a periodic revision cycle through submissions from authoritative sources or based on input from volunteers through The National Map Corps.

If you are interested in participating in The National Map Corps, which "encourages citizens to collect structures data by adding new features, removing obsolete points, and correcting existing data for The National Map," please visit The National Map Corps website. To identify the administrative features to be maintained through The National Map Corps program, click the question mark on the left side of the page, then click Structures List.

If you have further questions, please visit The National Map home page.

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

The GNIS 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 https://usgenweb.org, or https://www.findagrave.com/.

15. Can you assist me in purchasing property or can you tell me who owns a particular property or feature?

The GNIS does not maintain information on ownership of a particular property or feature. You would need to contact the owner of the property or the county or state government agency that maintains ownership information.

16. Why are there no ZIP Codes in GNIS?

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. For additional information concerning ZIP Codes, please contact the U.S. Postal Service.

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

No, GNIS provides the official name and location but cannot provide driving directions.

18. I think I have found an error in the GNIS? 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.

Please be aware that we can no longer accept requests for corrections relating to administrative or manmade features. As of October 1, 2014, the USGS instituted a policy where some administrative feature names (examples are church, library, museum, state or local park) will no longer be maintained and other administrative feature names (examples are cemetery, school, prison, fire station, and police station) will be maintained via The National Map Corps. We will continue to distribute the data we currently have, but will not accept additions or corrections for administrative names through the GNIS Manager email box. 

If you are interested in participating in The National Map Corps, which "encourages citizens to collect structures data by adding new features, removing obsolete points, and correcting existing data for The National Map," please visit The National Map Corps website. To identify the administrative features to be maintained through The National Map Corps program, click the question mark on the left side of the page, then click Structures List.

 

DOWNLOAD DATA

1. How can I obtain GNIS data?

There are several ways you can download or obtain GNIS data. 

GNIS 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 files up to 2000 records. We also provide the ability to link to a specific record or query results page ( see "How do I link to an individual feature record? "and "How do I save a link for a pre-defined list of feaatures? " questions at the FAQs at the GNIS query site).

GNIS Download Files: Data extract files for National, States and territories, and Topical Gazetteers are available for download. Seven 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. Historical Features lists information about features that no longer exist on the landscape or no longer serve the original function; the U.S. Concise File lists information about major physical and cultural features throughout the United States; the All Names file lists official and variant names for all features; the Feature Description/History lists those features having the description and/or history populated in the record; the Antarctica File contains entries throughout the continent of Antarctica as approved for use on United States Government products; and the Government Units file lists the names and the alphabetic and numerical codes of States. Data extracts also exist for those features having Federal Codes assigned. Please read the File Format for each file type to see more information.

GNIS ArcGIS Services (REST, WMS, ArcGIS.com): Provides direct access to the Names layers of The National Map, including display and download capabilities.

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 viewer.

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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://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:

https://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: https://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.

The National Map download client allows for download of the state extent pipe-delimited text fiiles. Users can also see geographic names as part of the map services.

2. How often is the GNIS updated and how often are the files updated?

Submissions and edits of natural features and populated places continuously occur in GNIS. Changes are validated by staff and made available at the web site and in the web services. The download files are updated and replaced approximately every two months. The date of the last update is displayed on the download page.

3. 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. See the Unicode Display Problems at the Unicode Consortium website for additional information concerning Unicode character display problems.

 

U.S. BOARD ON GEOGRAPHIC NAMES (BGN)

1. I have heard that the use of the apostrophe "s", such as Pike's Peak 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 BGN 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 BGN'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 BGN chooses not to apply its policies to some types of features. Although the legal authority of the BGN 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 BGN 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 BGN 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 BGN 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.

2. I need to know the official definitions (extents) of regions, For example, what is considered "the Midwest", "the South", etc...?

No official designations exist for regions at any level of government. The BGN, 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.

3. 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 BGN 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 BGN 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.

4. 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, Department of the Interior at: https://www.doi.gov