How to Organize Family History Using a Timeline

What happened? When and Where did it happen? And Who was involved?  When you want to Organize Family History, these are the questions that can be answered in a concise, chronological manner by building a time line. By extracting dates, times, and places your timeline will quickly begin to tell the family story.

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 How to Organize Family History Using a Timeline

What Is A Time Line?

The timeline is basically a form of displaying a list of events in a chronological order.  It will facilitate an understanding of a particular person in a specific set of events in a specific time period. So there you have it.  A lengthy list of dates on the left side of your page, followed by historical events – and perhaps a name of the person involved.  I quickly discovered this to be an academic list, and quite boring.  I wanted more bang for the buck.  The research is a tedious, time-consuming task so why not make the family history come to life through the process of a timeline?

What Is Your End Goal?

There are many reasons one has for researching family history.  My interest was piqued when I became a care-giver to my Great Aunt Hallie during her final years. Upon her death I inherited boxes chock full of memorabilia, letters, documents, and diaries.  As the years rolled by I continued seeing those boxes and decided almost twenty-two years ago to begin to sift through and organize the contents. The journey became adventuresome as it led me on numerous road trips across the United States, and to discoveries of little-known family trivia.

Though I had no real driving interest in detailed genealogical study, several charts along the way have helped flesh out a sense of time and place. My end goal closely resembles a leisurely stroll, enjoying the journey of each new discovery, and understanding the people as I learn more about their lives.

How To Get Started Building A Timeline.

With nearly 200 years of data in front of me, I know I am going to need to create a timeline. Regardless of the depth of research, or the number of years to be examined, I strongly recommend a timeline.

Purchase a couple of Composition Notebooks.  The notebook works for me particularly well because of its portability and constant accessibility.

Don’t try to be too detailed at the beginning.  Just write a date in the left margin, and begin an entry.  At first I was overthinking this process, intimidated that perhaps there was a right way and a wrong way.  Finally I decided the best way to organize family history was just to jump in and begin. You’ll fine-tune your own personal style as you move through the volumes of material.

As you handle an item – letter, document, diary, or an anecdote that’s scrawled on a scrap of paper, enter it into your time line.  These are random entries in random order – but ALWAYS with a date on the left margin.  This will help when you begin adding information to your computer.

Here is a list of things to look for as you go through your material.

  • The five basics: Who, What, When, Where, Why
  • Return addresses and information on envelopes, amount of postage stamps, anything unique
  • Newspaper clippings and the information provided as to source and date of paper
  • Vital records information, (births, deaths, marriages, divorces, adoptions)
  • Miscellaneous documents (business cards, contents of a wallet, certificates, receipts)
  • Military Records (induction papers, discharge documents, correspondence)
  • Education (artwork by children, school papers with grades, programs, achievements)
  • Church Information (names of pastors, records of baptisms, bulletins, location)
  • Calendars and Diaries (watch for notations, doodles, and entries)
  • The Fun Stuff (unique stories written about a family member, poetry, photos)
  • Genealogy Charts (great resource if someone has already begun the research)

Once you begin to get the hang of your own personal style, it will be time to transfer your timeline to the computer. It becomes much more manageable from here forward.  I found a WORD document works best for me – one continual running document which makes it easy to add material as I find something new, and to move forward or backward as needed. SAVE THIS DOCUMENT REGULARLY. 

Believe me when I say I am paranoid about this step.  During my college years I lost six hours of detailed work on my senior thesis because I forgot to “save” as I went along.  SAVE, SAVE, SAVE.  I also download onto a thumb drive each evening to have a secondary source.  Your work is too valuable to lose after you’ve come this far.

Add Emotion To Your Timeline.

What made these people laugh? What did they cry about?  Were there frustrations that were evident in their writings?  What were there struggles?

Because my end goal is to really get to know these people when I organize family history, I want to incorporate emotion into the organization of my timeline.  Here is how a typical page from my timeline might look.

1827 September 19, Handwritten letter to Bill Gagel in Jackson City from Sarah Andres at Pittsylvania City Virginia. “Dear Brother and Sister, I have thought for a long time of writing to you but neglected it ill now and thinking you would be glad to hear from us.  I take my pen in hand to inform you of our health and welfare. We are still in the land of the living but one.  Brother Paul is no more.  He died July 15 leaving a wife and four little children you both know how I loved Paul.”
1856 T.O. Swift and his wife Sophy Ann bore a daughter, Hannah Swift (3/11/1856 -1/26/1939).  The  family had moved into the log cabin from the old “Swift Homestead” sometime before the civil war  because the Union and Confederate armies had used the old house for their armies and had taken their horses.
1897 October 13 – ‘Miss Batts’ writes to her husband from Bloomfield KY – this letter is full of talk regarding the trading off of horses… “I am very sorry you have traded Charlie Gray off.  I would rather have seen Fannie go first – I will miss Charlie’s fast traveling.”
1916 August 14 – A love letter from Dan Smith in Cleveland to MISS Josie Tiller at 1141 Franklin Ave,  Columbus OH –  “My darling Josie, I am writing to tell you again how happy I am.  Even though the morning is still grey, my heart is full of sunshine because of the prospects of having my sweetheart with me in just three more weeks.  I only wish it were today instead….yours, Dan”
1917 May 5, – Certificate “Military Training Camps Association Hollenden Building Medical Certificate –  ‘This is to certify that Samuel Paul is in sound condition and capable of undergoing without injury the at times severe physical exercise incident to military training.”  Cleveland, OH Ht. 70 ½ WT. 152.”  Samuel is living at 1239 E 75th St, Cleveland O at this time.
1918 Hallie has gone skating today on Lake Erie
1942 January 14 Letter from Howard Thompson to Ginny and Dorothy  he mentions “speaking of tennis, it will soon be a pre-war game.  The rubber goes for national defense and so there will be no more balls. Eddie Cantor said last Wednesday that Donald Budge had been forced to play his professional matches this winter with meatballs, but that is very unlikely..”
1944 April 14 Letter from Tommy Arlew: “Dear Mother and Dad,  If I can talk Ginny into it I may get married in June.  I don’t know whether you’ll object or applaud, but I will be 21…Love Tommy.”
1944 September 15 – Letter from Tommy at Camp Hood, TX: “Dear Mother and Dad,  My  second week is just about over, and I find army life isn’t so hard and isn’t so unhappy except for its resemblance to being in the penitentiary.”

By “fleshing out” your characters using their own words, your timeline becomes a living piece of history, and an enjoyable read for years to come. So whether you are organizing history for the greatest novel of the 21st century, or just for the richness of remembering the past, I hope these ideas will help give you some useful tools for the process.

Let me hear how you have organized your collections of history, or things you have enjoyed about the process along the way.

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