Has this ever happened to you? I have my pile of documents (digital or paper) that I have feverishly gathered like a squirrel preparing for winter. I’m ready to dig in. I want to better understand this ancestor and his family. Then I sit down. And I just stare at the pile. I’m stuck. I don’t know where to start or what to do to sift through all of the people, dates, places, and stories. It suddenly seems overwhelming. Ugh. “This isn’t fun,” I think and go and see what’s on t.v.
Then it hit me. If I organize all of the information in a timeline for the central person, the research may be easier and all the bits of data may hang together to make a story. Further, building a timeline is a clear, easy process I can do to start to put together the pieces of a life one step at a time. That’s managable. That’s doable! However, I must admit that at first it felt like I was re-inventing the family group sheet, but I kept going, and wonder of wonders new genealogy answers unfolded before me.
How I use Timelines to Make Sense of Research
There are a few simple steps to making a timeline work for you, save research time, and eliminate duplicated efforts.
- I love Excel spreadsheets, so I open up a spreadsheet to start keying in information. If Excel isn’t your cup of tea, you can easily do this on notebook paper or graph paper.
- I set up a handful of column headers to organize the data. In this order left to right I include: age, day (month/day), year, event, location (county/state/country), source #, and comments. Let me offer a few observations about the structure I just outlined.
- Age – The timeline is specifically for one person, though it will have events that relate to many people (spouse, children). Therefore, it is important to me to know how old this person is at every event in his/her life. That’s why the “age” column is important.
- Day/Date – I separate the month & day data from the year data so I can sort the spreadsheet by year, and so I can have Excel automatically calculate the age of the person at each event by subtracting the birth year from the event year.
- Location – I use this field to keep a broadly defined migration trail going throughout this person’s life. I don’t include city or town names or cemetery names here (I put them in the comments field.) because people move from town to town more frequently than county to county. It’s easier to find patterns if you’re looking at the county migration list.
- Source # – This is a BIG deal. Every fact I add to the spreadsheet is sourced, many by multiple sources. To keep the spreadsheet readable and easy to navigate, I number each source – unique to that spreadsheet. For example, the 1940 US Census may be source #1, the tombstone may be source #2, personal knowledge may be source #3 and so on. Then I list those numbers in the Source column next to the fact. It’s super easy to see where you may have five sources for one fact and only one for another fact. Then, on another worksheet within the same Excel workbook, I make a corresponding source list identifying all of the sources with their repositories and with their respective numbers. I use shorthand descriptions, i.e. “1940 US Census for MA,” on my source list. However, should I want or need to get fancy; I can add another column in the source list with full and proper citations.
- Comments – This is the catchall field that has every piece of information about the fact that doesn’t fit into any other field that came from the source. For example, if using a Census record, I may include occupation, nativity, and naturalization status, information on boarders or in-laws living with them, and on and on. Again, it is the perfect tool to see patterns emerge. One ancestor identified himself consistently and in every record as a “shoemaker.” That data showed up in a straight line down the comments field. It was very telling to me that this person’s identity was closely related to him being a shoemaker.
- Field Notes – This isn’t a column per se in the spreadsheet. In Excel you have the ability to add “comments” to any one cell. They show up as a red triangle in the cell, and then when you mouse over the cell the comment becomes visible. I use these comments to insert opinions about the data itself. If I have conflicting dates, I explain where each date came from in the comment field. If I have an event that may or may not belong to this person, I detail that in the comment field. It’s a great way to track your research thought process without cluttering up the data.
- Then I fill out the facts of the person’s life one row at a time in the spreadsheet. I would include birth, marriage and death naturally. Then the births of each child. This is really, really helpful in creating a migration path because you can follow the trail of the birth locations of each child. Dates and locations of residences as reflected in census and city directory materials. I add in any military records – enlistment, battles, discharge, pension disbursements. Next, but not really in any particular order, I would add in immigration and naturalization events. I think you get the idea. I just add in everything I know about this person.
- Finally, I step back and look at what I have created, and I start asking questions. Are there any date or location conflicts? Are there any patterns, such as the occupation or place of residence? Does the trail of property ownership make sense – owned land, sold it, bought more land – as seen in the census or land purchase records? Do the ages at which his life events make sense? For example, if he married at age 35, could there have been a prior marriage or someone else of the same name that got mixed into his tree?
To make getting started with timelines easy, I’ve uploaded my timeline template in Excel for you. You can download it here for free.
Let’s say you’ve got this concept down cold, and you want to take your research to the next level. Great! Start putting your ancestor in historical context. Do the research on the time and place he lived, and then weave into your timeline events that would impact his world. This is guaranteed to shed a whole new light on his life.
Here are some local history ideas to get you started. When was the county founded? Was he a first settler there? When did the trains come through? Was a church community forming that he may have been instrumental in its foundation? If he didn’t fight during a war, was their a conflict during his lifetime? What about major illness outbreaks like flu or cholera? Did he immigrate? If so, what was happening in the “homeland” at the time he immigrated? Was he “pushed” to migrate due to unpleasant circumstances?
Where do you find this history? That is another whole discussion, but for now, start with the county and town histories of the communities he lived in. There’s genealogy gold in those books!
Today, take the first step of building a timeline for one subject person. I’m sure you’ll be amazed at the story that quickly unfolds in that pile of records sitting on the table.