The Timeline: Your Guide Through the Twists and Turns of Research

Experienced researchers often urge us to use timelines but why are they worth the time and labor? Lisa Lisson says


This post is based on my own experience and advice from more experienced researchers such as Lisa Lisson, Kimberly Powell, Diane Haddad, Gena Philibert-Ortega, Melissa Corn Finlay, Caleb Lee and the authors of the FamilySearch Wiki. 

Timeline: Chronological Time and Place

A basic timeline for your person will often yield insights before you add any extra information. You can also use maps old and new to find out about how they got from one place to another, and why they might have left the home place and moved elsewhere. Sometimes thinking about the travel will yield more clues, such as immigration documents, train or bus routes, or historic trails. Sometimes you will realize that the records you have found cannot possibly be for *your* person, but most be for another person with the same name. It's quite interesting and enlightening to disentangle them. 

Timeline: Reveals Research Gaps

Why is your person or their family not found in some census records? Looking at the timeline might help you find out. Have you searched land, tax and probate records to see if they might have been somewhere you didn't expect? Background reading about the history of the area will yield some clues. Don't neglect local history groups as you fill those holes in your research. A search of newspapers, even if you don't find your ancestor specifically, will give you a wonderful look at the events and thoughts of those who lived close to your person.

Timelines Reveal Lives

As I've thought through the lives of those for whom I created a timeline, I've made discoveries, ruled out sources that did not logically fit, and even answered the question I began with. Of course as we have all found, each discovery leads to more questions! Creating a timeline has been a great way to carry my research forward. The examples in this article are about the life of Effie McBee, my great-aunt. You can see the whole timeline here: Google Doc Timeline: Effie McBee

How To

So, how to create a timeline? Start with what you have. You have a tree in software on your computer or online. All of these have a timeline function which is where you want to begin. Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch Family Tree (pictured here) all have a timeline built in. Some people like creating a timeline with paper and pencil, some use a word processor or special software. I use Google Docs because our SKCGS Research Group, which shares timelines of Persons of Interest for our meetings, has found that an easy way to share. And as I've used GDocs, I've come to appreciate the tools. For instance, you can include record images and easily create footnotes for the citations. Control + Alt + f neatly adds the superscript number, then scrolls the doc to the footer area where you paste or create the citation. As you find more data points, GDocs automatically re-numbers if necessary.
 As I've often said, I cheat on citations when possible by copy/pasting them from the Person profile on FamilySearch, Sources tab. Proper citations enable you to use the information you have assembled for other purposes, such as writing an article or story about your person. You can see the citations in the Google Doc for Effie linked above. 

Lisa Lisson suggests correlating these personal timelines with local and nation events, and suggests some ways to get those dates in the post above. Ancestry includes some events in their Life Story (shown here) view. A web search for timeline locality-name can yield relevant information for your timeline.

Kimberly Powell says in her post Using Genealogy Timelines as Research Tools that consideration must be given to your research question, because listing every data point could lead to pages and pages of data. Using a research question to narrow your focus lets you organize the data you have and write the narrative or plan the research. Be sure to check out the case studies at the end of the article. 

Diane Haddad discussed how to use a timeline to tell a story, in Creating a Genealogy Timeline to Organize Your Ancestor’s Life. She shows how to use a map to illustrate the timeline and provide structure for the book she wrote about her grandfather.

Gena Philibert-Ortega makes the point in her article Genealogy Timelines: Helpful Research Tools that keeping track of the name of the person in the record is worthwhile, particularly for those who changed names, such a some men and many women who married multiple spouses. If the name in records didn't change, perhaps track street address, reported occupation, race or other unique details. This will help you ensure that you are researching one person, not two. This was crucial in my research of Effie, who married (at least) four times. 

The FamilySearch Wiki mentions some other sites that could be useful as you determine whether or not your person might have been involved in a war or other large event, at One task pointed out in this post which is valuable, is: 

Once you have created the timeline, determine:

• The parents' ages when they married

• The mother's age when she had each child

• The age of each child when he/she married

• The age of each person when he/she died

MyHeritage does this automatically and adjusts the age as you find more specific dates for events in each person's life. Pictured is a snippet of Effie's early life as rendered by MyHeritage.

There are some good videos on YouTube about creating and using timelines. Here is one from Boundless Genealogy which shows how to extract many data points from one record:

Caleb Lee of Family History Fanatics has a great short video exploring the somewhat hidden map feature of the FamilySearch Family Tree timeline: 

One last image, this one from the FamilySearch Family Tree timeline map for some of Effie's life:

Give timelines a try, and I think you will agree that they are well worth the work!

Valorie Zimmerman


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