Using Timelines in Your Research

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I majored in Spanish in college – what was I thinking! Forty years later I realize that I would have made a much better history major. My research emphasizes this fact daily. It is impossible to do quality genealogical research without a keen desire to place our ancestors in their historical and social contexts. Understanding the role that historic events and customs played in our ancestors’ lives provides us with insight into their actions and helps us develop effective strategies for further research. Timelines, chronological listings of events, are important tools in achieving these goals. Several strategies and resources will allow you to benefit from timelines as you pursue your research.

  • General: Several general history timelines are available online. These sites provide a broad picture of events that occurred within specific time periods. A listing of the inclusive dates for wars can provide clues as to an ancestor’s possible military service or his transportation/exile as a prisoner. The inclusion of inventions that might have affected the quality of our ancestor’s life may also be helpful. Two examples of online timeline sites include History of the World and HyperHistory. Useful print resources include Bernard Grun and Eva Simpson’s The Timetables of History: a Horizontal Linkage of People and Events (4th rev. ed., Touchstone, 2005), John B. Teeple’s Timelines of World History (DK Adult, 2006), Arthur M. Schlesinger’s Timelines of American History (Touchstone, 2001), and Chambers History Factfinder (Chambers, 2005). I particularly like the list of rulers with unusual epithets in the Chambers publication. Wouldn’t you like to have an opportunity to trace your family back to Boleslaw the Curly (Boleslaus IV of Poland, 1120-1173) or James of the Fiery Face (James II of Scotland, 1430-1460), or even Ivan Moneybag (Ivan I, Grand Prince of Moscow, ca. 1528-1541)? Of particular note is a new publication from Clearfield Company, Judy Jacobson’s History for Genealogists: Using Chronological Time Lines to Find Your Ancestors. Jacobson discusses how to consider our ancestors in their historical context and shares timelines for specific events or localities. These lists are interspersed with broader discussions about methods for finding missing persons, tracing social history and community genealogy, and understanding the impact of myths, secrets and lies on your research.
  • Locality specific: As Jacobson notes, a single historical event can change the world forever. While this more global historical picture is interesting, timelines more closely related to our ancestor’s geographical location will prove more useful as they include events with a more immediate impact on his or her life. US State History Timelines includes chronological lists of events and dates for each of the fifty states. (Since the site places related links ahead of the actual content; be sure to scroll down the page.) As I researched a Barkley family in North Carolina from the 1760s to the present, I consulted the North Carolina Timeline. George Barkley died in 1788. I learned that North Carolina became the 12th state to enter the union in 1789, a year after George’s death, and that the capital did not move from New Bern to Raleigh until 1794. George’s son Rhodes died in 1848, eight years after the first public schools opened in the state and five years before the first North Carolina State Fair was held. One branch of this family moved to the panhandle of Florida in the 1820s. By checking the Florida timeline, I learned that in 1822 the Florida Territory was formed and settlers arrived by the thousands. Additional state outlines are available in Jacobson’s History for Genealogists. Many county and municipal timelines are also available online (see Lorain County (Ohio) Timeline or the San Diego History Timeline), and other online sites are available for specific countries (see Useful Dates in British History or South African Orientated Time Line).

If you cannot locate a timeline for the locality in which you are researching, you may wish to develop your own. You can create a simple WordTM table or ExcelTM spreadsheet and consult county or locality histories to develop your list of significant events. Once completed, add the specific events from your ancestor’s life. You may also be able to create a personalized timeline using your genealogy software. For example, The Master GenealogistTM (TMG) offers a wide selection of timelines to use with your database information. In addition, Cyndi’s List provides links to various companies who offer timeline software. One again, Jacobson’s book, History for Genealogists, provides good ideas and strategies for creating a timeline and includes three case studies as illustrations of the process and its value.

  • Event-specific: An ancestor may have been very involved in a specific event. If so, a timeline providing details of the event will be useful. Cyndi’s List provides links to several such sites including The History Place: Holocaust Timeline and a Huguenot Timeline. In addition, Timelines-AlternaTime provides links to numerous event-specific timelines. Books such as The Civil War Day-by-Day (Zenith, 2007) will prove very helpful in placing your ancestor in a specific place on a specific day.
  • Unusual topics: The Food Timeline provides a unique opportunity to enhance our understanding of the daily life of our ancestors. While this timeline begins circa 17,000 B.C., information from later centuries will prove more useful. I clicked on “colonial wedding cakes” (circa 1770) and found a quotation from Mary Donovan’s The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook (Praeger, 1975) that described a wedding feast held in Stonington, Connecticut, in 1726; a list of items to consider in recreating a colonial wedding feast; and a list of books to provide additional information. An 1863 entry provides full-text access to Confederate Receipt Book: A Compilation of Over One Hundred Receipts, Adapted to the Times, published in Richmond, Virginia. The ability to comment on what our ancestor might have been cooking and eating adds important detail.

I was disappointed to find that the link to Some Notable Weather Events, a site that had provided information on weather conditions through history in the U.K., was broken. Undaunted, however, I Googled “weather timelines” and discovered a site providing Oklahoma climate data beginning in 1900. In addition, Today in Weather History provides the ability to enter a specific month and date (and year if desired) and receive entries concerning historical weather events specific to that date. While I was unable to determine the site’s inclusive dates of coverage, when I entered my birth month and day (without specifying a year), the first entry was dated 1835. On that date New England was experiencing one of the coldest days on record, with Norwalk, Connecticut, falling to -15º by noon. That evening a New York City fire destroyed much of the financial district. If your ancestor lived in New England or New York City in the winter of 1835, these events can be further amplified through newspaper articles, diaries, letters, or even photographs.

Timelines are an essential supplement to your research. While your ancestor may have been aware of some of the more global events, state and local events will have directly impacted his or her daily life. Make your timeline as specific to your ancestor as possible. Timeline details will not only enrich your understanding of his or her life, but will also suggest resources and records for further research and may help you distinguish among individuals with the same name living in the same place at the same time.

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