By Chuck Livermore
If you have never used timelines in your genealogy research, you may be neglecting a useful tool. Timelines may reveal periods that need more research or help you to understand misguided conclusions you have reached that are difficult to see from reading a narrative. Timelines are especially useful for genealogists who struggle with doing math in their heads. They can also simplify dates for ancestors that lived in 1752, the confusing period when the English changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar.
It is sometimes difficult to see time inconsistencies on a pedigree chart or a family group sheet. It often does not immediately jump out at you that the son you placed in a family was older than his mother or that someone who graduated from high school when you think they did would have graduated eight years before their older sister. This is where a timeline is a useful tool for genealogists. It helps you see at a glance without doing a lot of arithmetic that something is wrong in your research.
It is also advantageous to place your ancestor’s life in historical context. You can quickly tell if someone was the right age to have fought in World War I or it can help you understand why they left their family in Biloxi and moved to Pittsburgh when steel production was at an all-time high in America. You may realize that your ancestor lived approximately the same years as Thomas Edison, Jesse James, or a President. You might be able to better understand why your grandmother was so opposed to war if you realize her father died on Omaha beach during WWII when she was nine. You can perhaps excuse Aunt Myrtle’s penny-pinching ways if you know that she was widowed young at the beginning of the Great Depression.
Timelines will also assist you in keeping the chronology of your ancestor’s life straight. You may find several children born before an ancestor’s marriage. This doesn’t necessarily mean the couple had these children out-of-wedlock. It may instead indicate that the marriage was a second marriage, after the death of the first spouse. The timeline will show which children were born to which spouse. You may be able to tell which jobs an ancestor did in Oklahoma and which ones he had in California. Timelines make these details less difficult to spot at a glance. They are easily overlooked in documents and reports.
If you have never made a timeline yourself you may want to get a template from the internet that you can annotate. Microsoft Word users can go to office.microsoft.com and type “timelines” in the search box to bring up a number of downloadable templates you can adapt for your genealogy project. Or you can search for other timeline templates using your favorite search engine. Several sites will give you dates to add the historical context. For example, try ourtimelines.com or e-referencedesk.com. Also look for important events in local histories.
To create the timeline, I start with the ancestor on whom I am currently working. I will first list his birth, marriage, and death dates. This gives me the scope of the time period with which I am working. I then add the dates of all censuses in which I have located my ancestor. Next, add other significant events that occurred during his life and are documented .These can be personal events like the births of children or the deaths of parents, siblings, or associates. The dates of significant awards or tragedies can also be noted. List the dates of historical events that give your ancestor’s life context. These can be local events, such as a tornado that destroyed several blocks in your ancestor’s town. Or it may be a national event such as an economic boom or bust or legislation that affected them. You will see how your ancestor was shaped by the events he or she experienced.
Don’t worry about how your working copy of the timeline looks. You can make notes in the margins or squeeze new events into any unused space and draw an arrow to put it in the correct spot on the timeline. Some have taped a long roll of paper to a wall and added a lot of detail to their timeline. You can always create an attractive final copy for reports or other publications from your working copy when it is finished. Try using a timeline for the next ancestor you research. You may find it so helpful that you never do research again without one.