A genealogy timeline is the best tool to organize your ancestor’s life events and reveal gaps in your research. Create timelines to help find your ancestors!
I admit it. I get stuck in my genealogy research!
I seem to have a large number of ancestors with common names or the same name. Really, could there be any more men in colonial North Carolina named John White?!
Out of frustration one day, I pulled out paper and pencil (yes, I went old school.) and started creating a timeline for all of the events in the life of “my” John White.
What I discovered when I added all events found for John White in a certain time period and location astounded me. I was not looking at one man named John White. Not even two men.
My research partner and I realized we were looking at FOUR men by the name of John White.
That’s the power of a timeline!
Needless to say, one of the best things I ever did for my genealogy research was to organize my genealogy information – the events of my ancestors’ lives – on a timeline.
3 Reasons to Use a Genealogy Timeline
Placing your ancestor’s life events on a timeline does three things:
- Timelines allow you to put your ancestor in chronological time and place to better understand his/her movements and connections to people and locations.
- Timelines reveal gaps in your research where more information about your ancestor is needed.
- Simply by creating your ancestor’s timeline, you become more familiar with him/her and can possibly anticipate where to find more sources of information.
Try These Tools to Create Your Ancestor’s Timeline
“Low Tech” Timeline Tools
My favorite two tools to use when I start creating a timeline for an ancestor are paper and pencil.
That’s right….just paper (notebook paper is fine for me!) and a preferably a mechanical pencil. If I’m feeling really wild, I’ll add in colored pencils. Sometimes old school is best way to start.
“High Tech” Timeline Tools
More high-tech options are certainly out there. I absolutely use those as well.
Check your family tree software for a timeline option. Your online family trees at Ancestry.com, FindMyPast and MyHeritage also have this feature. This can be a simple and fast way to create your ancestor’s timeline.
Other online resources are out there, too. Some are free and some are subscription based.
One thing you will want is a good historical timeline. Placing your ancestor among national, state and/or local events can reveal important clues about your ancestor and places to search for new records.
Online tools will often have this feature built in. The Animated Atlas of American History is one of my favorites.
For state and local events timelines, I simply perform an internet search for “Timeline of [Location] history”.
Performing an internet search for “Timeline of North Carolina History” resulted in timelines for different centuries, timelines on women’s history, and timelines on healthcare/epidemics. If you have ancestors in North Carolina, any of these events could have had an impact on there lives.
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Creating Your Genealogy Timeline
Timelines can take on many different forms. Let’s look at a few examples before you begin. I created three different timelines for William Halley of Halifax County, VA. Each has its own advantages.
1. This is a paper and pencil timeline for William Haley (1861-1948) of Charlotte County, VA. This one is simple, quick and requires no learning curve. When I physically write things down, I internalize the information better. This is my preferred method for particularly tough genealogy problems.
2. This is an example of a vertical timeline for William Haley created using Google Sheets in Google Drive. You can use MS Excel or your favorite spreadsheet program to achieve the same thing. View the whole timeline here. Creating a timeline with Google Sheets is advantageous if you research with a partner. They are easy to share an edit together.
3. This is an example of a portion of William Haley’s timeline from a genealogy website. Ancestry.com displays an individual’s profile in a timeline format. While this style by Ancestry.com has not always received favorable reviews, there are advantages to it. Check the program you use for your family tree for instructions on creating a timeline. In the past, I have used FamilyTreeMaker and RootsMagic to easily create timelines as well.
There is no right or wrong way to create your timeline. Try different formats and find which works best for you. The best timeline is one that you will actually use!
Now, Get Started Creating Your Own Genealogy Timeline!
Grab those physical and digital ancestral files that you have already organized and readily accessible.
Decide which historical timelines to use for reference.
Decide the format of your timeline.
How did your timeline turn out? Share your discoveries in the comments below!