Genealogy Timelines: Helpful Research Tools

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena explains the importance of genealogy timelines – and provides a free timeline template to download for your own family history research.

Do you use timelines for your family history research? Genealogy timelines provide a visual representation of your research that makes it easier for you to examine information you have collected on where your ancestor was, and what they were doing, at various points in their life. No matter how you put together your genealogy timeline (whether via a genealogy software program or simply using a chart in a word processing document), they are an important research tool for tracking your ancestor and for understanding their place in history.

Here is a sample genealogy timeline for John M. Howard.

a sample genealogy timeline

Download the free GenealogyBank timeline template >

Who, What, When, and Where

A genealogy timeline allows me to track the basic facts I want to know about my ancestor in one place. Use your timeline to document the information you find in documents, newspapers, and books. My timelines consist of tables with five columns; Date, Place, Event, Comments, and Source. This allows me to view everything I know about a person in one place. As I find new information I add a row to my genealogy timeline, with the information in date order.

Create your timeline so that it is most useful to you. You might prefer color-coding events, names, or even sources. Maybe you want to add portions of an original document to your timeline entry, or links to websites. Whenever you’re using a genealogy tool like a timeline it’s important that you create it in a way that you will use and that will assist you in your research.

While timelines provide a great place to document your family history findings, don’t forget to use them for asking questions or noting next steps. In my timeline’s comments section I always add analysis, observations or what information I need to look for. When I add newspaper articles, I always include comments regarding follow-up research or even new keywords I need to use in my searches.

Most importantly, make sure you document the source where you found that information in your genealogy timeline. This will help you later when you need to refer back to a newspaper article, document or a website. While this may seem like a lot of work now, it’s nothing compared to the hassles of trying to track back to find something later.


Add Unique Identifiers

As I create a timeline for an individual I always add a column based on something unique about that genealogy research. For example, in one case I was researching a man who lived in the early 20th century, who changed his name three times, lived in five different states, and married a total of four times. I added a column to my timeline to note what name I found him listed under and his address. This allowed me to get a sense of when and where he was using a specific name. A family history research project I’m currently working on involving a woman who used a “professional” name – as well as various versions of her birth name and subsequent married names – involves numerous newspaper articles over time. So tracking what name I found information under and what newspaper is vital.

Mind the Time Gap

A genealogy timeline is a “living” document, meaning that it is essentially never finished. As you find new information and discover new events, you will add to your timeline. One of the aspects of your timeline you’ll want to keep a look out for is the gaps in time. Whether they are small gaps that represent months or larger gaps representing several years, you’ll want to keep in mind those gaps and what they could represent.

Researching a female ancestor who has a large gap between births in her children? This could represent a number of things including the loss of a child or children due to miscarriage or childhood disease. It could also represent her husband being gone for a period of time like in the case of military service during a war. When you see a gap in your timeline ask yourself what that gap could mean and then check out what was going on in history that might have had an influence on the life of your ancestor. Performing newspaper research for that time period and place can be especially helpful.

Understanding Ancestors’ Lives in Historical Context

History is an important component to what we do as family historians. We have a tendency to ignore history in our search for details of an ancestor’s life, but the two are intrinsically linked. History had an effect on your ancestor and their choices whether it was war, famine, or unemployment. As you add events to your timeline don’t forget to add historical events to it as well. This may assist you in determining what additional documents could exist and provides context and richness to your family stories. For example, research for an adult male ancestor living during World War I should include a search for a World War I draft record. Historical newspapers should also be searched for possible mentions of military service.

Genealogy timelines are a tool that can assist you as you research – and later as you compose – the story of your ancestor’s life. Use your timeline to add research finds as well as history to better understand your ancestor’s story.

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One thought on “Genealogy Timelines: Helpful Research Tools

  1. Hello Gena,
    I was in a discussion group you led through the National Institute of Genealogy a while back and am reading this article as one of the readings for ASM2. I just wanted to let you know how useful it is. Thanks so much and take care.

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