If you’ve been doing family history for a while, you have at least one, and likely several, brick walls. Those lines that just seem to slam the wall and make you wonder if they were born under rocks. And if you’ve followed my blogs, both history and genealogy, you’ve probably noticed I’ve said several times that you should strive to put your ancestors into context. There is one trick often used by professional genealogists that will help with the latter and may help with the former and that is creating a timeline detailing all of the information you know and historical dates that occurred during your ancestor’s life and may have impacted him or her. It is one of my favorite tools to begin to visualize the lives of a set of my ancestors and I almost always see something else I should pursue for data or just see them in context in a way that a pile of records just doesn’t do.
Timelines are one of the easiest things to do when trying to get a handle on a generation of one of your lines. They can be done on just an individual, or you can do a family from birth of the first to the death of the last one. They can be done in one or two ways or a combination of both. You can do them in Word using tables or in Excel. Or you can use a timeline program that is either online or a software that is downloaded to your computer. If you’ve not done one before and you have Word or Excel or a comparable program on your computer, I would suggest starting there. Label your columns and begin adding your information. You can really have columns that capture whatever you want to collect but I would suggest as a minimum the following:
- Day and Month
- Year (separating the year from the day and month allows you to sort by year, then day and month)
- Person – individual primarily involved with the fact
- 2nd Person – in some cases an event impacts more than one person, like a marriage
- Citation – ALWAYS put your source information next to the fact
- Notes – at times there will be a bit of information you want to keep with the fact that doesn’t fit elsewhere or you want to remind yourself of a new search you want to do based on this fact
Once you have the personal data in the timeline, do some historical research about the larger events that occurred around your ancestor(s) in the timeline and add those that might provide some context. Now really study the timeline. Look for new ideas for searches and look for gaps and make notes on resources that you can check for missing information.
Most of us benefit from seeing the total as a whole rather than a bunch of separate data points. It allows our brains to make connections that are just harder to see if you just have a bunch of data in your database but can’t see the whole at one time. Some of the family history software programs do allow the development of timelines. Family Tree Maker does, at least the newest version provides a simple one. It isn’t fancy and doesn’t capture as much information as I would like but it is a start.
I also use a software program that I purchased a number of years ago for another project. Timeline Maker Pro is an okay program for the purposes of family history. It will take all of the input and create a timeline like must of us imagine when we hear the word, a long line with dates and short headings for each date. That’s not something you can do with Word or Excel. There are also some online programs, some that are free and some that have a cost that can do really nice interactive and media inclusive items. Depending on what you want to do with it, these are visually very appealing. You can also do timelines in PowerPoint and the individual slides can as well be used in a software program like PhotoStage to create a movie presentation of your slides.
Be creative and look for various options for your timelines. They can be helpful in drawing the family into being interested in the family’s history and they can be fun to do. And most of all they may help you see what else you need to research and some possibilities for breaking through brick walls.
See You Next Week
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