A timeline is a valuable tool for tracking life events in your ancestors’ lives.
Why Use Timelines
A timeline is a visual representation of events in sequential order. Timelines are often used in genealogy to place an ancestor in a historical context giving us a better understanding of their lives and how they fit into the world around them. Timelines can help break down brick walls allowing us to see:
- Where a person was and when.
- Gaps in time where information is missing.
- Instances where two people of the same name might be combined.
- Possible scenarios (for example, finding a large gap in the birth of children during the Civil War period).
But also keep in mind timelines are a great basis for writing biographies and genealogies, as well as a visual component to share with others.
Timelines are great tools to help us put our research in a different perspective. The visual nature of a timeline often reveals clues for additional research. There are three general types of timelines: basic, comparative, and historical.
With our Skill-Building: Breaking Down Brick Walls course you will learn more about building your own timelines and how to use them in your research.
Time to Analyze
Once you have developed your timeline, take a step back and really study it. What does it tell you? Are their gaps in your timeline that need to be accounted for? Is there a new location you are not familiar with? And perhaps most importantly for brick wall busting, has the timeline revealed an answer to your question, and if not, do you have some leads to follow up on? You will use this analysis to record your thoughts and plan your next steps.
The timeline gives you a period of time to investigate and locations relative to the period of time. Put your analysis and plan of action in writing, this helps to keep all of your thoughts organized. As you uncover new items of information, be sure to update any timelines you have created and review and analyze them again with the new data.
Also, keep in mind that timelines may identify other questions that either need answering or something you might want to explore to understand your ancestor better. The timeline can easily be your basis for developing a plan related to these new research ideas. With our Skill-Building: Breaking Down Brick Walls course you will learn how to develop these timelines and analyze your results. All helping you to break down that brick wall.
Comparative timelines can be used to compare two or more people/families. For example, the objective may be to determine the migration of two separate families joined together by marriage. A timeline showing both families will help to focus the research.
Unlike a basic timeline, a comparative timeline shows each year, whether there is an event or not. Constructing a timeline whether simple, detailed or comparative, can help illustrate gaps of time. The timeline can help determine where to look for records.
You can take comparative timelines a step further by adding additional family members or associates to the mix. For example, you could follow, and ultimately compare, children, siblings, in-laws or even neighbors, to see if other connections can be made.
A comparative timeline is also useful when trying to sort out identities. Sometimes we run across instances of name changes or aliases, and of course, we all have those female ancestors with unknown maiden names or parents. A comparative timeline can help you track each of the individuals to see if any fit the pattern to be your ancestor. For more information on Comparative Timelines and our Skill-Building: Breaking Down Brick Walls course.
Building a Basic Timeline
More often than not, you will want to create a basic timeline for your problem ancestor. Start with information about all of the events in their life, including their birth and death dates, any marriages, birth and death of any children, the death of a spouse, and death of parents. You might also want to incorporate relevant information about the locations you are working with, for example, boundary changes.
You may choose not to indicate the source to begin with or you may use footnotes to cite the source. Creating footnotes in a spreadsheet program cannot be done with ease so you may want to include a short source reference instead.
One of the other uses of a timeline is to help illustrate instances where two people may have been combined. You can usually see this by just looking at the dates and locations and notice that something does not quite add up.
In addition to helping solve tough genealogy problems, this type of basic timeline is a great tool to keep handy when doing research. There are multiple ways to approach timelines and with our Skills-Building: Breaking Down Brick Walls course you will learn more.