Using Timelines for Genealogy


Contributing Writer
Janet Wahlberg

Most of us are familiar with Timelines. You see them in museums and history books. But, have you ever thought of using them to enhance your genealogical research? They can vary from simple to elaborate with images and embellishments. They can cover a short time span or one that spans centuries. In short, they can be configured to your specific needs.

Some of the ways to use them in your research are to display the movement of your family over time, to organize all those notes that you have acquired over time, taking a closer look at Brick Walls or to sort out people with the same name. Depending on your specific need and your way of looking at things, you again have choices. You may want to create the straight line across a page, create a grid or simply create a list down the page. Grids and tables can be created using Excel or Word Tables.

The next step is to decide what it is that you hope to accomplish with your timeline. Let’s work through a few examples. Such as why did they emigrate, which John Johnson is my relative, what am I missing in solving my brick wall, and what else do I need to look for in my ancestor’s life.

You have done a great deal of research and have all the dates of birth, marriage death, and immigration. Don’t we all wish for this scenario! However, what you do not have is why your family immigrated and why they moved around once they came to this country. I would use a line timeline for this. They have wonderful roles of paper at some of the office supply stores that would be the perfect medium. Now get out your yardstick and begin. You will want to be concise in the information that you put on the chart and leave a bit of space between events. Now go to one of the timeline websites that are on the internet and type in timeline for what is pertinent to your family. Example – Timeline Ireland 1830 – 1920. You will receive several choices. I used the WIKI ones in researching for this article.

Plug in some of the more major events that show up such as the Potato Famine or the 1916 Uprising. As you add these items to your timeline, you may notice a pattern that shows that your family emigrated at a time that coincides with these events. While you will probably never have actual proof, it can give you an idea. It may also inspire you to read about these events to develop a better understanding of this time in history that your family was apart of.

Let’s look at another scenario that has emerged from your research. You have found 3 or 4 men with the exact same name and ae not sure if they are the same person and even if they are your family. This time you will want to create a fairly short timeline. Set it up with dates that range from 10 to 20 years before your earliest information on these men and 10 to 20 years after the latest information on them. Now begin to fill them in along the time line. To help keep them separate you may wish to use different color ink for each. As you look at the timeline, you may begin to see that one or two of them appear to be the same person. This indicates the need to closely re-exam your research. Or you may see that two of them are in totally different locations on the same date. As this is physically impossible, it again indicates the need to re-visit your research.

As this topic is larger that can be covered in one column, I will continue the discussion next month with a look at a time line that I am using to sort out a very challenging family. I will also share some on-line resources that may be of great assistance.

To read Janet Walberg’s previous genealogy columns or to delve deeper into her writings and insights for searching out and recording your own family’s genealogy, please go to and visit Janet’s own web page.