Genealogy

Timelines: The Unsung Hero of Genealogy

An important tool for genealogy research is a timeline. It can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be, as long as it helps you on your family history journey.

The timeline allows you to put your family member’s life events that you are aware of in chronological order. These events include:

  • Birth
  • Marriage(s)
  • Death
  • Birth of Children
  • Death of Children
  • Death of Parents
  • Census Location
  • Historical Events: National, State, Local

Once you have all of your events listed, you will see how they migrated, or even stayed in the same area, or if you are missing information all together over a period of time, you can determine what records you need to fill in the gaps. But most importantly, a timeline can help you get to know your ancestor in a way you hadn’t before.

Types of Timelines

There are primarily 3 different ways you can create a timeline for your genealogy. Timelines can be found in genealogy software, Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, you can draw them by hand or you can create in a spreadsheet. Below I will go into detail of all of these.

Genealogy Software Programs

If you use a genealogy software program to keep track of your ancestors, you probably already have a timeline or chronology section for this purpose. I use Legacy Family Tree and here is a timeline for my great-great-grandmother, Mazie Warner.

You can see her age in the left hand column and you may find a gap of where additional information is needed. This is is not a complete picture, it’s what would fit on my screen so you can still read it.

Online trees such as Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org offer timelines too. On Ancestry it is easy to miss as it’s the “Facts” view on a person’s information page.

My Ancestry page on my great-great-grandmother, Mazie Lorenia Warner. You can see how the years are off to the left going down in a timeline form.

To access the timeline for a person on FamilySearch.org you just need to highlight the second option (to the right of “Details”) to show the chronology of your person’s life. If nothing else this exercise has brought to my attention that I do not have the 1880 census as a source for Mazie on FamilySearch.

Draw a Timeline By Hand

Sometimes simple is best and the easiest way is to draw a timeline by hand. For many this is a great way because by writing out the documents you have in chronological order, you see how their life progressed. I feel using colored pencils may nice to use because you could have selected Green for all birth dates, Red for all Death Dates, etc.

My attempt at a hand-drawn timeline.

Using a Spreadsheet

I discovered a YouTube video done by Anne Mitchell for Ancestry.com on how to create a simple timeline using a spreadsheet that included a column devoted to “Thought’s and Comments” which was a space that included your analysis of the timeline, and where you could add the types of records that you needed to look up for any gap you may have found. This type of timeline can be used with a Spreadsheet in Excel or Google Sheets, or by creating a table in Word or Google Docs.

Creating Timelines to Better Understand Records and Families – by Anne Mitchell via Ancestry.com was a YouTube video I watched that instructed me on this homemade table/spreadsheet

I found this to be extremely helpful when working on my family members. By typing out what I had and knew it allowed me to not only really look at each document closely, but pointed out what documents I still needed to find.

Original Research

What do I mean by “original research”? It’s the research you do when you are looking for something specific that you don’t have. Something not handed to you in the form of a hint on a database program (such as Ancestry.com’s leaf hints or the “Research Help” suggestions on FamilySearch.org).

By creating a timeline of your ancestors you can then move onto original research as you find the missing documents to fill in the gaps that you find. For example, I only have a date of my great-great-grandparents marriage from a Marriage Index I found but I do not have the actual marriage license confirming the date of 2 January 1894. I need to go in search of this record that took place in Wellsville, Allegany, New York.

As you continue to see what information you are missing for your person, think about what records you need to find. For example if you find that your people are moving around, try to find them in city directories, or look through land records to see if you are able to find where your ancestor was either the seller of their old property or a buyer for their new (they should be listed on both). If your person fought in a war look to see if maybe they had any land warrants for serving.

Also remember that not all records are found online. There is that chance you may have to research in person for the records that you seek. Sometimes you will be fortunate to contact someone in the records/archives where you people lived and will have time to look for you (though a price may be involved).

I hope you enjoyed learning about the different ways that you can create timelines for your research and I hope you begin to implement them in your family history journey.

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