October 15th, 2012

Formulating an Effective Family Timeline

Timelines are one of my favourite genealogy tools to create. They’re a great way to grasp your family history at a glance, and a convenient way to quickly share you family history with others. You may have seen timelines in your history books at school. They are usually used to show important historical dates in chronological order. In genealogy we use them to show important family events; births, deaths and marriages, even anniversaries and graduations from school, college or university. You can depict when a family member started a new job, or first opened the doors of your business. The options are endless, only dependant on your imagination and the type of events you wish to display.

Making a Genealogical Timeline

Genealogical timelines are a combination of the life events of your ancestors, local events, and historical events. Sometimes it’s possible to place our ancestors within world events such as the World Wars or natural disasters. Historical events could have also caused our ancestors to migrate as with the Great famine of Ireland. They can help us to put our family in historical context, as well as painting a complete picture of our family history. The following system can be used to create a family history timeline on your computer, or a handwritten one using our Free Downloadable Genealogy Timeline Template. It’s a simple two step process that will be both fun, and fulfilling; albeit a good bit of work!

Genealogy Timeline Step 1 – Gather Information

The first step to constructing your genealogy timeline is to gather as much information on your family as possible. You will want to locate where they lived on historical maps, and consider any important world events that took place in those areas. If you have trouble locating that information you can use surname databases to see geographical locations where your surname is concentrated. Census reports for that area may reveal much valuable information as to the identities of your ancestors, while local newspapers and obituaries may reveal even more.

Consult as many genealogical records as possible, and collect as much data on your family as possible. Church records, probate records, military records, BDM certificates and the like will provide you with more than enough events to include in your timeline. Especially of value are County Historical Records local Genealogical and Historical Societies. When consulting Historical or Genealogical Societies, you’ll get the best results if you have some knowledge of your ancestor. If not, they are more than happy to guide you as to where to look for that information.

Genealogy Timeline Step 2 – Putting it All Together

Once you’ve gathered as much data about your family as possible, you can begin filling in your timeline. A simple way is to begin with an A4 sized piece of blank paper. On the left side you will list the years, beginning with the date that is farthest back in time. In the middle of the page, create a column for the names of your ancestors. The farthest column to the right will list the local, world, or family event that your ancestor was involved in.

You can also use the same system to create a timeline for the life of specific ancestors. In this case you would list the year your relative was born in the far left column, and end with the date of their death. The middle column would depict the date of their life event, while the third column would list the event. If you choose, you can leave a bit of space in each line of the columns to add extra notes.

The Benefits of a Genealogical Timeline   

Your ancestors were affected by the events happening around them. World or local events could explain why they migrated, or chose to stay put. Be sure to add these important dates to your timeline, as they can explain at a glance certain decisions your ancestors might have made. There is no need to list events that didn’t affect them, but as you add the events that did, imagine that your ancestor was a part of a larger whole. This helps you to place your ancestor in both a historical context, and also illuminates their relationship with their community.

Elements of an Effective Timeline

To be sure you get the greatest benefit from your timeline, make sure it contains the following components:

  • The Date of the Event
  • The Name of the Event
  • The Location of the Event
  • Any Relevant Citations (Quotations or References)
  • Name of Your Ancestor
  • Age of Your Ancestor at the Time of the Event

Creating a timeline is an excellent way to get your feet wet with genealogical research You will become familiar with the different types of source that are available to genealogists, while learning the basic tricks and techniques of research. Always remember to verify any information you discover before placing it into your timeline, and most of all, remember to have fun while doing so. Good luck with your timeline, and Happy ancestor Hunting!

We have additional information on timelines Here.