Research Tip of the Week

This week my tip is about a simple grade school concept that can be helpful in organizing your genealogical research. I think we all learned how to make a simple timeline at some point in early education. The concept is simple. A straight line with marks to show notable events in chronological order.

Family History Timelines

In family history research creating timelines can be a quick and straightforward way to visually understand what documents you need to find as part of your research. No fancy software or websites required; I often jot down a quick timeline on scratch paper with a pencil. For more elaborate timelines there are software programs and websites that allow the creation of detailed timelines.

A quick refresher

The concept is simple. A line, typically straight, from left to right. The dates at each end will be determined by the topic of your timeline. If you were researching the lifetime of one ancestor your start date would be the year the person was born, and the end date would be the year of death. Between your start and end dates, fill in events that may have generated records during your ancestor’s lifetime.

What to include?

Any records that your ancestor generated between your start and end dates are worth considering for inclusion on your timeline. Census records are a document that people in the United States generate every decade. If your ancestor lived in the United States between 1790 and today, census records might be an item to list on your timeline. If your ancestor lived during a period of military conflict, they may have generated records related to that event. Marriage is another even that leaves a paper trail that you may want to list on your timeline. The birth of children is another noteworthy event to include.

Why create a timeline?

Timelines can be useful in genealogy in several ways. They can help you build a research plan by showing the records you should be looking for in your research. They can help your research stay on track by letting you easily see the records you have found and the ones that you still need to find. Timelines are especially useful when trying to find determine if a research subject is two people with the same name or the correct person by letting you compare events and places in their timeline. As a tool in the genealogy toolbox, timelines can help push complicated research to the next level.

Genealogy timelines in action

Here is a timeline I have created to help me work on my brick wall ancestor Emma Davis. Emma was my great-great grandmother. I have more questions than answers about Emma. The family lore is that my great-great grandfather, James Spence, left Emma early on in their relationship and took their three young children to Michigan. Further tales tell the story of Emma remarrying and being under the impression that her children with James died in an epidemic and that when her grown children found her later she refused to accept them because she had told her new family the story about their death.

timeline of Emma Davis
Timeline of Emma Davis

A newspaper clipping from 1887 indicate she disappeared from Marblehead, Ohio and I have found no conclusive proof of her existence after that, or a death record. Did Emma drown herself or did she start a new life?

7 April 1887 Stark County Democrat

What is the truth? Who knows? Often records don’t tell the whole story. I want to find as many records as I can so that I might know as much of the story as possible. This timeline helps me organize my research. My research into Emma won’t be complete until I can locate all the documents that she generated during her lifetime.

As I find documents, I can add them and compare my facts with others to make sure things add up and I remain on the correct track. The 1880 census has been especially helpful in eliminating incorrect possibilities. While not impossible, it is improbable that she shows up in two places on the 1880 census.

My timeline for Emma Davis doubles as a research plan. I use excel for mine which allows me to add my documents right to the workbook. I can link the source documents which I have loaded onto another page of the workbook to my timeline. My timeline is visually basic, but it is easy to dress up the worksheet with photos, images, or other eye dressing for situations where you are sharing your information.

Do you use timelines in your genealogy research? What great discoveries have timelines helped you uncover in your searches?

  1 comment for “Research Tip of the Week

  1. Amy
    February 18, 2020 at 5:04 pm

    Yes, I do this all the time—though with pen and paper!

    Liked by 1 person

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