The Blog

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Organize Your Project with Timelines and Maps

Why use timelines?

How do you keep your personal calendar of things to do each day? Written into a calendar hung on the wall by the fridge? Carefully noted in a day planner? Typed into your Ipad, phone, or other electronic device? Hundreds of sticky notes stuck to the front door? Some ways are better than others, but the fact of the matter is that you probably keep on schedule better when you are keeping some kind of calendar. It is a very rare person who can keep all their appointments and to-do lists in their head, collated and cross-referenced with all the relationships and demands placed upon their time. So, why do we think we can keep someone else’s life from a hundred years ago– every fact, document, and migration–  sorted in our heads at the same time? If you calendar your own life, it makes sense to “calendar” your ancestor’s life.

Start your timeline simply

There are four options, and we will discuss some pros and cons of each.

1) Paper and pencil.

Pro: If you aren’t comfortable with computers, at least you’re getting it done.

Con: Hard to adjust if you find new information.

2) Word document on your computer. Use a simple document to enter facts into a table you’ve created, or use easy-to-read bullet points. Use the footnoting option to cite and document each fact.

Pros: Easy to adjust, print, duplicate, and share.

Cons: None (in my opinion), unless you hate using the computer.

3) Create a spreadsheet.

Pros: Many people find this format familiar, and easier to refer to.

Cons: Harder to transfer the information when you are ready to write a report or narrative. Don’t forget to include a column for citations.

4) Use your computerized genealogy program to create a timeline for you.

Pros: Quick and easy.

Cons: You may not own a genealogy program. And make sure that your generated timeline cites the source of each fact.

What are the elements of an effective timeline?

Regardless of which way you decide to create your timeline, it must have five basic things: Dates, places, descriptions of the events, people involved, and citations of where the information came from. Keep it simple or make it complicated, it’s up to you. Dates can be the whole day-month-year or a simple year reference. A place should be as complete as possible, including a town (if known), county or parish, and state. Descriptions of the events vary widely from voter records to birth of a third child to an obituary. Having a list of people involved is an often-missed section of timelines; knowing who witnessed the deed or who else was in the household that census day can help with future research. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: the citation. How can your judge between different pieces of events if information is conflicting? Using citations and applying common sense to questions like “Which document was made closer to the time of the event or created by a witness to the event?” A mother’s letter about her baby’s birth is probably more convincing than a granddaughter’s recollection. When I have a big project ahead of me, the timeline becomes my main organizational tool. I can chronologically look for clues and patterns. Do I have two men named John voting in different wards of the city on the same day? I may have two Johns, and have to watch that I keep their records separate.

Try it

Build your timeline now with the background information you collected on your focus family from last month. What do you notice? Are there gaps? Contradictions? Now go back and include major events, such as wars in that country, famines, or anything you think might reasonably have caused changes in your focus family’s lives.

Map Your Timeline

Mapping out your family’s chronology wil be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. There are two types of maps you may find yourself needing. First, large maps of multiple counties or states that show migration patterns. Second, detailed maps of cities/counties or plats of deeded lands, created with descriptions of chains, links, compass points or cadastral survey map subdivisions. Your choice of map depends on how far your ancestor traveled or what you are looking for.

An example of how mapping out the family answered a question. Look at the map at the top of this blog article, complete with some county names. The question was “Where were Jane and William married?” Here are some points from their timeline (simplified, and without citations for this example):
• 1845 – William was born in LaSalle County, Illinois
• 1850 – Jane born in Jo Daviess County, Illinios
___? – Married in an unknown place.
• 1873 – Missouri, daughter Emma born
• 1876 – Iowa, daughter Sophie born
• 1879 – Missouri, daughter Mary born
• 1880 – Census in Nodaway County, Missouri
• 1883 – Gentry County, Missouri, son Willie born

In mapping this family’s migration,  I learned something very important. I learned that Iowa, which had been later in my timeline (where daughter Sophie had been born), turned out to be an much more important place. Using the two lines from Jane and William’s birth places to places they were known to be later, I ended up finding that they had married in Louisa County, Iowa, smack in the middle. I even found the name of Jane’s step-father on the marriage record!

Now it is your turn – What could you find out with timelines and some creative mapping? You’d be surprised. Give it a try and let us know what new information you discover!

Next month: Research Plans