Recently, while working with a patron at the Family History Library, I was reminded of the value of creating timelines, a chronological listing of the events in someone’s life. The patron had copied several censuses on his family, one of which listed his ancestor as an adopted son in the household. Now he wanted to be pointed to a record that would identify the boy’s biological parents.
When I suggested we study the records he had found and create a timeline of the events in the records, he became impatient, and assured me he already knew what the records said. I reminded him I needed to come up to speed with his research, so he let me begin the timeline. As we identified events to record, my friend realized that there were items he’d overlooked in his reading of the documents.
Though timelines aren’t the answer to every problem, their value as a problem-solving tool is often overlooked because of the time and thought required to plan and create them. This may slow down your research in the beginning, but once you have your data organized, it is much easier to analyze. In fact, the very process of creating the timeline can help resolve some issues.
So how do you create a timeline? It depends on the problem you’re trying to solve. You can make a simple, hand-written list of dates, places and events for a single person arranged in date order. Or, you can make an elaborate, computer-generated, table or spreadsheet that also includes sources, associates, and other items you want to track. You can use a timeline to organize the data about one individual, sort out multiple people of the same names, or separate multiple interconnected families. You may want to add historical events to your timeline that could have influenced the family you’re tracking.
Timelines are not just make-work projects. They are tools to help you re-evaluate your data, evaluate your sources, identify additional places and records to research, uniquely identify people, and to put their personal lives in a historical context. Perhaps their greatest value is as a tool to organize your data visually. Through the whole process of creating the timeline, you are looking for clues to further your research objective.
With my patron at the reference desk, creating a timeline worked wonders. Together we identified items to record on the timeline, including dates, places, events, and the names of other people to look for if needed. Suddenly something flagged my attention. The head of household was about 11 years younger than his wife! She was in her late 30’s, he was in his 20’s. The census noted that the wife had had 4 children, 4 of whom were living. Only 3 children in the household had the father’s surname, and they were young. Between those three children and the adopted son was a servant girl. The adopted son was older by a good margin than the other children, but a perfect age to be the child of the wife by an earlier marriage. Perhaps we were looking at a blended family.
Though there may be another explanation to this scenario, we now had a hypothesis to prove or disprove, one that suggested records to search and that evolved as we created a timeline with an open and inquisitive mind.