Organize Your Genealogy

Organize Your Genealogy Using a Timeline

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This month we are focusing on organizing our genealogy research.  Genealogy organization includes more than just organizing your physical files.  It can and should include organizing the events of your ancestors’ lives.

Genealogy organization includes more than just organizing your physical files. It can and should include organizing the events of your ancestors' lives.

Let’s talk about timelines!

Placing your ancestor’s life events on a timeline does three things:

  1. Timelines allow you to put your ancestor in chronological time and place to better understand his/her movements and connections.
  2. Timelines reveal gaps in your research where more information about your ancestor is needed.
  3. Simply by creating your ancestor’s timeline, you become very familiar with him/her and can possibly anticipate where to find more sources of information.

Tools to Create Your Ancestor’s Timeline

My favorite two tools to use when 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. Add in colored pencils and that’s a bonus!

More high-tech options are certainly out there.  Check your family tree software for a timeline option. This can be a simple way to create your ancestor’s timeline.

Online resources are out there, too.  Some are free and some are subscription based.  I have not personally used any, but have seen Timetoast and Our Timelines as options other genealogists use.

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 Ancestor’s Timeline

Timelines can take on many different forms. Let’s look at a few examples before you begin.


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.

William Haley Timeline Google Sheets

2. This is an example of a vertical timeline for William Haley created using Google Sheets in Google Drive.  You can use MS Excel to achieve the same thing. View the whole timeline here.

William Henry Haley Facts

3. This is an example of a portion of William Haley’s timeline from a genealogy website. displays an individual’s profile in a timeline format. While this style by 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 here.  Try different formats and find which works best for you.  The best timeline is one that you will actually use!

Now, Get Started!

Grab those physical and digital files that you have already organized and readily accessible.

Decide which historical timelines to use for reference.

Decide the format of your timeline.

Get started.

How did your timeline turn out?  Share yours in the Facebook Group!

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