Timelines are one of the most useful tools in the family historian’s toolbox!

I’ve been using timelines since I started researching my family history. Pedigree charts and family group sheets are great for summarizing relationships and storing facts, but they have lots of limitations. For family historians interested in the story part of family history, pedigree charts and family group sheets don’t make the story very clear. For me, this is where timelines come in.

Here is a basic timeline based on information contained in a typical family group sheet:

Date (When?) Event (What happened?) Source (How do you know?)
abt 1874 Eva Kruczkas was born in what is now Lithuania. She was the daughter of Stephen Kruczkas and Mary Mozicka. William Abromitis (grandson of William Abromitis), handwritten note, undated, circa 1960. Privately held by author. Birth date from 1900 census.
abt 1875 William Abromitis was born in what is now Lithuania. He was the son of Frank Abromitis and Marion Stanulis. William Abromitis note. Birth date from 1900 census.
Table continues with marriage, births of children, deaths.

For me, the timeline lays out the information on the family group sheet in chronological order, and thus shows the order of events. It gives the nucleus of the family’s story. It also prompts questions that might not arise from contemplation of the family group sheet alone. Including source information enables you to judge the quality of the information you have and can give you ideas for further research. (You will notice that I used shortened citations in the sample table, rather than full-size, Evidence Explained-style citations.) You can vary this basic three-column layout as you wish, limited only by your imagination. Here are some of the variations I use:

  • Using footnotes to document source information instead of placing source information in a column.
  • Adding columns for Notes and Questions, Future Research, Sources to Consult.

In addition to bringing out the sequence of events in the family story, timelines are great tools for analyzing records. The individual entries for a family in a census record, for example, document events that occurred before the date of the census. Here is an example from a 1900 census entry for the family above:

Date (When?) Event (What happened?)
May 1873 William Abromatis was born in Russia Lithuania.
Mar 1875 Eva Abromatis was born in Russia Lithuania.
1895 William and Eva immigrated to the U.S.
abt 1897 William and Eva married.
Sep 1899 William and Eva’s son Jacob was born in Pennsylvania.
1900 William and Eva Abromitis lived in Shenandoah, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, with their son Jacob, in a rented house. William was a coal miner and had not applied for naturalization.

Census entries are not the only records that document events that occurred on several dates. For example, a marriage license application and return may record

  • The approximate date the groom was born, with names of parents
  • The approximate date the bride was born, with names of parents
  • The residences and occupations of the groom and bride on the date of application
  • The date the marriage license was granted.
  • The date and place the marriage was performed, perhaps with the name of the officiant.

A death certificate may record

  • The decedent’s date and place of birth, with parents’ names>
  • The marriage of the decedent, with spouse’s name, but without date (Logically, the marriage occurred between the decedent’s date of birth and date of death.)
  • The decedent’s date and place of death.

Timelines are also a great way to correlate the information from multiple records, and identify conflicting information.

In constructing your timelines, you can infer events from the events actually recorded in the records you are using. In the case of the death certificate, if the places of birth and death are different, you can infer a move from the place of birth to the place of death include it in the timeline, even if you don’t know the date of the move. As you incorporate information from multiple source records in your timeline, you may be able to add documented dates or refine date ranges.