Family Group Sheets, Pedigree Charts, and Individual Summaries all have their place as indespensible tools to do genealogy. But what I’ve found – that is rarely discusses – is that timelines are extremely helpful in solving problems and better understanding your ancestor’s life.
What Would You Gain from Creating a Timeline?
Genealogy timelines help put an ancestor’s life events in sequence and in context. Here are a few things you can learn when you step back and look at a ancestor’s life in a timeline.
- How old was the person when major events in their life and / or history happened? Was this person alive or of age when war broke out? My ancestor, George Watson, was 19 when the Civil War commenced. He was ripe and ready to fight.
- How close in succession did events happen that may have shaped their lives and actions. I know my Dad lost is mother, brother, and father with six months. Do you think that may have had an influence on his life?
- What did the migration trail look like over time? Did they migrate as adults after a war? Did they travel with their parents – or as orphans – as children?
- How old was one partner when the spouse died or divorced? How soon thereafter was the remarriage, if there was one? Did the remarriage happen – as with many of my ancestors – because the widow may have needed help raising a bunch of young ones?
- Did they arrive in a town/county/state/territory when it was first settled? What would their lives be like then in contrast to an established frontier? Did they follow friends & family to a community or forge out on their own? It’s a big difference in understanding your ancestor on a very personal level.
- What was the technology like during their lifespan? Were they of the horse & buggy era, steamboats & steam trains, or jet airplanes? I had no idea if my ancestors came west to Kansas on trains or wagons – until I looked at a timeline of history in contrast to their personal timeline.
Looking at a life’s timeline takes genealogists to the next level beyond finding dates and names. It really cracks open a window to their personality, their times, and their way of life. And that’s what most genealogists really want. They want to get to know the people.
How Do You Create a Personal Timeline?
I love Microsoft Excel. I do just about any genealogy analysis in it because it is great at organizing information in columns and rows.
To start you just open up a worksheet in Excel, and make column headers – don’t worry if you don’t capture everything you want at first. You can always edit later.
I include columns for age (at the date of the event), event (what happened), date (of event), location, source for that information, and the all-flexible “comments” field. A note on the comments field – if you’re filling it up with the same information on all of the events, such as who they were with, you can easily create a separate column and dedicate it to just that information.
Then start plugging in facts as you collect them. Here’s a list to start with.
The obvious facts
What each state & federal census tells you –
- Residence or location
- Property ownership
- Birth dates of the children
Everything you gather from other sources
- Military experiences
- Death of any children, their parents, spouses
- Marriages of their children
- Birth of grandchildren
Finally for the “bonus round” you can weave in the events in history that were relevant to this ancestor’s life. Military events (wars, battles), founding of a state/territory/town, and the establishment or joining of a church. And there is so much more. There really is no limit to the scope of the timeline.
So, don’t be shy, grab a piece of graph paper or notebook paper or even an Excel spreadsheet, and start outlining an ancestor’s life. You’ll be amazed to see what comes to life in their story!