Using Obituaries to Create a Family Timeline


You've seen timelines used for notable people and institutions outlining important historical events. Usually the year and the date as well as a brief description of the event are included.

Obituaries offer dates and events about a particular family member that can be plotted on a timeline. You could create a timeline for each person starting with date of birth, or you could combine the information from several obituaries about the same family in a Family Timeline.

A Family Timeline

A Family Timeline is a valuable way to piece together important historical events in your family's history. Keeping records of important dates and notes on the significance of those dates offer perspective so we can surmise what it must have been like living in those times. A Family Timeline allows you to piece together a living history where you get to see what was happening in that family as events overlap.

Searching for Clues in Obituaries

When you are reading old obituaries and you see important dates, it is always a great idea to copy the important points and make notes on each point. You can find helpful obituary research tools that will help you get all the information you need out of your old obituaries at Once you have identified the important dates, it's time to plot out your time line. Decide which format will suit you the best.

Timeline Formats

Horizontal timelines are common on websites and as displays in museums and art galleries. They will usually have the years on the line and then the event above or below the approximate date of the event.

For our purposes, a vertical timeline is more appropriate. A vertical timeline has the year in chronological order on the left, the exact date of the event to the right of year and then a description of the event immediately to the right.

Horizontal or vertical, a timeline is very difficult to update with pen and paper. If a new event is discovered, you have to cut your timeline and insert a new page with the new information or start all over again. If you are using a word processing program on your computer to create your timeline, it's easy to add events and years. Simply insert the year, date and event description and you're done.

Plotting out the Your Family Events on a Timeline

Start with one obituary. Write out all the events from that person's obituary before moving onto another obituary. Start with the year, then the date (if you have it) then a brief description of the event. See the example below:

  • Johnson / Elliot Family 1841 – 1900
  • 1841, August 2, George Johnson was born
  • 1845, February 9, Bessy Elliot was born.
  • 1865, July 18, Bessy Elliot married George Johnson
  • 1866, October 12, Bessy gave birth to Elizabeth Joan Johnson
  • 1868, June 11, Bessy gave birth to Frederick George Johnson
  • 1871, Summer, Bessy and George went west and settled on the homestead
  • 1884, May 9, Elizabeth Joan Johnson married Jackson Lee Brown
  • 1885, June 24, Elizabeth gave birth to Silas John
  • 1888, October 15, Elizabeth gave birth to Selma May
  • 1889, June 6, Frederick George Johnson married Wilma Thelma Robinson
  • 1890, September 3, Wilma gave birth to Lewis Ray
  • 1892, January 17, Wilma gave birth to Alice Elizabeth
  • 1894, April 23, George Johnson passed away
  • 1900, September 8, Bessy Elliot Johnson passed away

This is just an example of how to plot out a family timeline. You can include any event or detail you wish. Dates of enlisting in the military, joining clubs or attending school are all important in your family history and can be included in your family timeline. Keep your timeline up to date by adding in new events as you discover them.

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