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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - February/March 2006

Timelines play a critical role in genealogical research.  This is especially true when using any type of court records dealing with land and probate matters.  I just returned from the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy where I took the 20 course tract on Land and Court Records in Genealogical Research.  The importance of timelines was a major focus in discussion throughout the week. This is the first in a series of articles describing their importance to the genealogical research process.

Family historians are accustomed to using charts and forms to organize their research. Pedigree charts, family group sheets, and descendant lists are standard tools of the trade. Timelines are critical in helping genealogists search for and verify information gathered during the research process.  All genealogists must learn the tools for evaluating the information gathered from family members, neighbors, passenger lists, court records, vital records, family Bibles, or any other type of source from which information is gathered.  At some point the following question must be asked:  Does the information gathered fit the circumstances?

Timelines are defined as a chart that graphically shows events over a period of time. Depending on the type of timeline that is generated, these events may be for an individual, a family, or several generations. Some timelines show personal events in comparison with another person (or persons), such as birth and death. Others compare a person?s life against a backdrop of historical events.

The usefulness of a timeline may not be immediately apparent. After all, genealogists are familiar with reading ancestor charts and family group sheets. While they can be compared to the lives of two people, they may not be the best charts to use if several people are being compared or if the people are not related. Details can be overlooked in the lines of text on a family group sheet, but a timeline ? with its colors and bars ? literally diagrams a person's life.

The graphical format of a timeline, as opposed to traditional text-based charts, can be an aid to research and analysis. Suddenly, it can be very obvious that a mother was over 50 years old when her last child was born or that there was a ten-year span between the births of two children. Both of these items should be clues for further research. Was the last child actually a grandchild? In those ten years, was there a child who died in infancy? The different format of a timeline can make these details more obvious.

Some programs allow users to add historical events to a timeline, which can give clues for further research. They can also give historical context to the family by allowing the researcher Some programs allow users to add historical events to a timeline, which can give clues for further research. They can also give historical context to the family by allowing the researcher to add events that were happening around the family. It is very easy to be overwhelmed with historical events. Careful researchers will include only those events that affected the family. If the family was living in the United States during the Civil War, it would be hard for them not to be affected.

Several of the new genealogical programs and software offer timeline charting as part of the program's capability.  We will discuss these programs in the next article.

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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