United States Board on Geographic Names

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The United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) is a United States federal body whose purpose is to establish and maintain uniform usage of geographic names throughout the U.S. government.[1]


The Board was created in 1890; its present form derives from a law of 1947. Under the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, National Mapping Division, BGN was created by presidential order:

President Benjamin Harrison signed an Executive Order on September 4, 1890, establishing the United States Board on Geographic Names. The Board was given authority to resolve all unsettled questions concerning geographic names. Decisions of the Board were accepted as binding by all departments and agencies of the Federal Government.

The Board has developed principles, policies, and procedures governing the use of both domestic and foreign geographic names. It also deals with the names of geographical features underseas and in Antarctica.

Although its official purpose is to resolve name problems and new name proposals for the federal government, the Board also plays a similar role for the general public. Any person or organization, public or private, may make inquiries or request the Board to render formal decisions on proposed new names, proposed name changes, or names that are in conflict. Generally, the BGN defers federal name use to comply with local usage. There are a few exceptions. For example, in rare cases where a locally-used name is very offensive, the BGN may decide against adoption of the local name for federal use.[2]

In federal mapping and names collection efforts, there is often a phase lag where a delay occurs in adoption of a locally-used name. Sometimes the delay is several decades. Volunteers in the Earth Science Corps are used to assist the U.S. Geological Survey in collecting names of geographic features.

The Geographic Names Information System, developed by the BGN in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey, includes topographic map names and bibliographic references. The names of books and historic maps which confirm the feature or place name are cited. Variant names, alternatives to official federal names for a feature, are also recorded.


The BGN currently publishes names on its website. In the past, the BGN issued its decisions in various publications under different titles at different intervals with various information included.[3] In 1933, the BGN published a significant consolidated report of all decisions from 1890-1932 in its Sixth Report of the United States Geographic Board 1890-1932.[3] For many years, the BGN published a quarterly report under the title Decisions on Geographic Names.[3]


The BGN was established in 1890 as the "Board on Geographical Names" and has undergone several name changes.[3] In 1934, it was transferred to the Department of the Interior.[3] The 1969 BGN publication Decisions on Geographic Names in the United States stated the agency's chief purpose as:

"[Names are] submitted for decisions to the Board on Geographical names by individuals, private organizations, or government agencies. It is the Board’s responsibility to render formal decisions on new names, proposed changes in names, and names which are in conflict. [The decisions] define the spellings and applications of the names for use on maps and other publications of Federal agencies"[3]

Other authorities

  • The United States Census Bureau defines census-designated places, which are a subset of locations in the Geographic Names Information System.
  • The names of post offices have historically been used to back up claims about the name of a community. U.S. Postal Service Publication 28 gives standards for addressing mail. In this publication, the Postal Service defines two-letter state abbreviations, street identifiers such as boulevard (BLVD) and street (ST), and secondary identifiers such as suite (STE).

See also


  1. U.S. Department of the Interior. "U.S. Board on Geographic Names", U.S. Board on Geographic Names homepage, 2009-02-09. Accessed 2009-02-28.
  2. Donald J. Orth and Roger L. Payne (2003). "Principles, Policies, and Procedures". United States Board on Geographic Names and Domestic Geographic Names. http://geonames.usgs.gov/docs/pro_pol_pro.pdf. Retrieved July 7, 2009. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Topping, Mary, comp., Approved Place Names in Virginia: An Index to Virginia Names Approved by the United States Board on Geographic Names through 1969 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1971), v-vi.


  • U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, National Mapping Division, Digital Gazetteer: Users Manual, (Reston, Virginia: U.S. Geological Survey, 1994).
  • Report: "Countries, Dependencies, Areas Of Special Sovereignty, And Their Principal Administrative Divisions," Federal Information Processing Standards, FIPS 10-4.
  • Report: "Principles, Policies, and Procedures: Domestic Geographic Names," U.S. Board of Geographic Names, 1997.
  • U.S. Postal Service Publication 28, November 2000.

External links