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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - April/May 2006
The Perspective of Timelines

Genealogists strive to understand their ancestors and their lives beyond the dates we note on a pedigree chart.  Timelines can be used to place our ancestors' lives in historical perspective. Timelines provide us with an orderly, encapsulated view of the past. They are clear and structured ways to help us make connections, solve puzzles, and interpret lives.

Family historians love dates, facts, lines, and charts, so a "line of time" is a natural device. There are a variety of ways to use a timeline:

. Making sense of how two families became one.
. Proving (or disproving) family stories.
. Understanding how historical events influenced an individual or family.
. Interpreting migration patterns

One of the simplest timelines you can create is not a line at all, but a chronological list of written events. This would more accurately be called a chronology, but it also represents an outline of content, organized by date, that can lead to a more visual timeline.  Although writing a simple chronology is a useful tool in and of itself, it also serves as an outline toward creating a more visual timeline. To develop a timeline, ask yourself the following questions:

1.   What do I want to accomplish with this timeline?
Define the particular question, personal or family event, or contradiction you want to investigate.

2.   Who is my audience?
Is the timeline for your own research purposes, to share with family members, or to publish in a book or journal?  This will determine the nature of your product.

3.   How will I present it? Graphs, text, linear representation, visuals?
You can color-code or otherwise format groups of related events, include a summary of conclusions, and be done with it. Maps are also a format to consider if, for example, you're following two families migrating westward from different parts of the east, and you want to understand how their two paths merged. Graphs are most common in genealogy because so many of the software programs have companion programs that generate timeline graphs once you select the parameters.

4.   How should I divide my timeline?
Longer time periods need lengthier segments. If you cover a century, you may want to break your line into decades. If you cover a decade, you can separate it into individual years.

5.   What type of events will be important to add to the timeline?
Let's say you want to trace two immigrant families. You'll need to include events that impacted their decision to immigrate (e.g., wars, changes in religious tolerance, poverty, epidemics) as well as events in the United States that drew them here and determined their final residence.

If you have already compiled your family's events for a timeline, but you need to add the dates that relate to your timeline's purpose, you'll find plenty of historical detail in almanacs, encyclopedias, and history books at your local library. The Internet is also overflowing with dates, timelines, facts, and nearly everything else you could want.  One of our readers contacted me with  another option which replaces the Family Origin genealogy program mentioned in my last column.  That has been out of production for a number of years.  RootsMagic is its replacement.  RootsMagic is authored by the same person.  Go to to see what the new program offers. 

Bryan L. Mulcahy
Reference Librarian
Fort Myers-Lee County Library
2050 Central Avenue
Fort Myers, FL  33901-3917
Tel: (239) 479-4651
Fax: (239) 479-4634

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