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When to do a Timeline (…and how to Make it Effective)

Sometimes, when our research gets too complicated and we get frustrated we tend to put our family history aside for another day.  There is however, one last step that you should consider before doing that.  Consider timelines! A timeline cannot only get you out of a frustrating research loop – it can literally save you time from the beginning.  Keeping a timeline and filling it in as you go along with your research is a smart choice that will never let you down.

You can create your own timeline from templates you can find on the web, from a spreadsheet, or create your own in a word document (or similar writing program – see below).

Grandfather John Anton was born in 1917.

b. 1917                                                       m. 1938            1st child b. 1942

1915__l______1920_l_______1925______1930_____l_1940_l____1950

War declared on Germany 1917       Prohibition begins Jan 1920   US enters WWII Dec 1941

As you can see, I like to put the personal facts from the person on top and the historical facts on the bottom.  I think that historical facts put things in perspective – so I always include a few important historical facts in my timelines.

Another way to do this is a simple vertical timeline:

1917 – John born
1938 – John married Mary (Jessup) May 16
1942 – June 2, First child born, Mary
1945 – John joined the Masons
1946 – April 14, Second child born, Jason
1972 – deceased Aug 10
1972 – buried Aug 14

Or you can do a double column timeline and have personal details on the left and historical details on the right:

1917 -  John born 1917
War declared on Germany 1917
 
1920 – Prohibition begins
1938 – Married Mary (Jessup), May 16
1941 – Us enters WWII December 1941
1942 -  June 2, First child born, Mary
1945 – John joined the Masons
1946 – April 14, Second child born, Jason
1972 – deceased Aug 10
1972 – buried Aug 14

Do you see how this makes it easier to see the gaps in information that you have?  It literally puts their whole life on one page for you to see!

Any way you choose to do it, make sure it feels comfortable to you.  There is nothing worse than writing out a research project, only to realize that it confuses you more and doesn’t necessarily make your life easier.  That is the whole point of this exercise – to plainly put things into context in an easy to read, easy to comprehend document.  You notice that I wrote “document”?  A timeline should never be more than one page in length.

Also, consider this…  I am always advising my students to research the county and town histories of their subjects.  Through this, you can discover if there were unexplained deaths (epidemics), and why things happened in their lives.  Locality histories could explain a lot as to why family members disappeared, towns moved, or they may even mention an event about your ancestor that you didn’t know about!  I could go on and on about local histories – but this is another subject for another time…

I hope this has given you another tool to make your research easier.  If you have ever done a timeline – or an alternative format – please share with us the way you did it and the rewards that it brought to you.

About LDrewitz

Leslie (Gignac) Drewitz (PLCGS) is a graduate of the National Institute of Genealogical Studies, with a Professional Learning Certificate in Genealogical Studies - Librarianship and currently works for a suburban Chicago public library where she oversees the Local History collection; as well as their Genealogy Club, where she teaches and lectures. She also does private contract genealogy. Leslie lives with her husband Michael; her four children, Ellissa, Trevor, Jon and Katie; and their wonder dogs, Harley and Birdie. You can contact Leslie by email, LDrewitz101@gmail.com.

6 comments

  1. I use an Excel spreadheet for one family line for the 1800s. People are in columns on the left, each generation indented. Moving to the right, I have columns with headings: 1800 census; 1800s; 1810 census; 1820s, etc. In the cell for each person I enter location (in the case of census) or event/other reference in the decade column. It has really helped me spot inconcistencies (turned out to be errors, of one sort or another, I had made, like tracking the wrong person of the same name) and also helped me develop hypotheses about how to solve gaps in information–for example, I was missing my 4th great-grandfather in the 1800 census and began to suspect he hadn’t moved to his new location until after 1800. Then, months later, as I found additional records and filled in the spreadsheet, I realized I had info showing he did in fact lived there in 1800. Back to the 1800 census for a page-by-page search, and there he was. He had been mis-indexed with a very poor trancription spelling in the index.

    • I LOVE spreadsheets, don’t you? What a great way to show what is missing or if you’ve gone off the track… Great story and great tip, Jill! Thanks for commenting.

  2. I add the person’s age between the year and event. Sometimes you can spot an error based on age. For example, a woman in her 50′s most likely isn’t having children. Without the age being stated, I might or might not spot the error and investigate.

  3. You are absolutely right! What a great way to prompt you to see errors clearly… I never thought of that. Thanks for the input, Pamela.

  4. Thanks Leslie, for the ease-in introduction to timeline use. A practical case-study presentation was posted in November on the Reclaiming Kin blog, here: http://msualumni.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/analyzing-and-correlating-records/, that some readers might also find helpful.

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