Writer's Guide to Government Information

Resources to inject real life detail into your fiction

US Geonames Server / Board of Geographic Names

US Geonames Server / Board of Geographic Names – http://geonames.usgs.gov 

Representative Questions This Resource Can Answer:

  • Is there a [particular feature] in a given state or county?
  • Where is a town called _______?
  • Where is there a dry valley in Antarctica I can drop characters into?


This site coordinates the naming of features both domestically, abroad, Antarctica names and even undersea features. If you’re looking to use real names for your places, this is the best place to go.

The site is divided into the following sections: Domestic Names, Foreign Names, Antarctic Names and Undersea Features.

Clicking on “search” in any of the section takes you to a form where features can be searched by field. For Domestic Names these fields are: Feature name, Feature ID (USGS control number), state, county, feature class (Airport, Arch, cemetery, dam, falls, summit, among many, many others) and Elevation (Between, equals, higher than, lower than (feet or meters).

Records in this database will have a few more fields than listed above, including “history” and description. These fields can vary from a single sentence to a paragraph. For example the history of Devils Paw simply says “Name published in 1908 by U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS) on Chart 8000.” Whereas the History for Tenakee Springs, Alaska says:

“Local name derived from “Tenakee,” the former name of a cannery located 4 miles to the east. Tenakee Springs is a health resort because of the warm springs located here. It has a wharf, store, cafe, crab cannery, (U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS), 1962, p. 145) and a post office, established here in 1903, called “Tenakee,” but the name was changed to Tenakee Springs in April 1928. It was called “Hoonah Hot Springs” by Lieutenant Commander H. E. Nichols, U.S. Navy (USN), in 1891 Coast Pilot (p. 163).”

An individual record also links to a set of mapping services provided as a courtesy as the USGS does not make endorsements.

The “foreign names” section of this site is different enough to break out its description. To access the Foreign names search, be sure to click on the “foreign names” at the top of your screen and not on the left side. This is a fairly complicated search and it is important to click on the plus signs next to possible search criteria. Aside from undersea and vegetation features, this resource appears to lack the reference to natural landmarks that make the domestics name search so compelling.

It will be useful for verifying foreign community names and since the search results link to maps, for locating your foreign communities.

Search Tips and Ideas:

Domestic Names

To give an example of locating numbers of features within a state, look for arches in Utah. A list of 198 named features is generated. The search results display Feature Name, ID, Class, County, State, Latitude, Longitude Ele(ft), Map, BGN Date and Entry Date.

Clicking on any of the column headings sorts by that column. So not only can we tell that there are 198 named arches in Utah, we can also see that the highest arch is Square Arch at 9,432 feet and that there are three arches – Gregory Natural Bridge, LaGorce Arch, and Twilight Arch vying for the lowest arch in Utah at 3,704 feet. All three of these “lowland arches are in Kane County. If we sorted by county, we could then ascertain which county in Utah could claim the most arches.

To answer the question, “Is there an X in State Y”, let’s do a search for arches in Alaska. Turns out that compared to Utah, Alaska is impoverished in arches. Actually when I proposed this search I was pretty certain we didn’t have any. I was wrong. Alaska has two arches. We have Natural Bridge in the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area and Natural Arch in the Valdez Cordova Census Area. So, when you’re not using this to populate your stories with features and a dash of history, you can use the Domestic Names search to settle bar bets.

Antarctic Names

Searching by description can be intriguing if you have an idea of what to look for. I searched “Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition”, the name of a 1957 mapping expedition. That brought up 228 features and the records I checked all seemed to have been named by the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.


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