How To Use Timelines In Your Genealogy Research

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

It is important to know how to use timelines in your genealogy research. A timeline is a helpful tool for a genealogist. It provides a chronological order of important events set within a specific period. Both personal and historical events plotted in a timeline layout for us the amazing story of an ancestor.

As a tool, a timeline helps us organize the events in the life of an ancestor and puts them in a historical framework. A timeline can help us break through brick walls by pointing out inconsistencies in our research, periods with few details, and noticeable gaps.

How To Analyze A Genealogy Timeline

A timeline can also help us think about the facts we have and formulate new questions. For example, the partial timeline below captures the known events in the life of my paternal grandfather. While the events that occur later in his life are well-known by the family, confusion and mystery surround his immigration to America thus creating a brick wall in my research progress.

How To Use Timelines In Your Genealogy Research

Using A Timeline To Break Down Brick Walls

From the known events in my grandfather’s timeline, I came up with the new questions. These questions helped me break through brick walls and stumbling blocks. In analyzing his timeline, I wanted to know the following:

  1. Where did he live after arriving in New York?
  2. When did my grandfather return to Italy and join the Italian Army?
  3. Why did he join the Italian Army instead of the US Army?
  4. Is there a passenger list leaving America en route to Italy during World War I?
  5. How many other Italian immigrants returned to Italy to join the Italian Army during World War I?
  6. When and where did he get married? Is there a state or church record?
  7. In the 1930 census, it states that my grandfather immigrated in 1919. Is there an immigration record? Was the 1913 immigration a temporary period? Did he come through Ellis Island a second time or through another port?
  8. Is my grandfather listed in the 1920 federal census? If so, which state?
  9. The 1930 census also states that he’s a naturalized citizen. Where was he naturalized? When?
  10. His firstborn daughter is also listed in his household in the 1930 census. It shows that she was born in Italy, not Rhode Island. When did she immigrate? What was her port of entry?
  11. The Ancona was sunk by an Austrian submarine near Sardinia in November of 1915. The New York Times publicized the event and included a list of passengers. Is this available?

As you can see, this chronological timeline of my grandfather’s life has exposed both inconsistencies and questions about his early life. These questions have redirected my research focus, so I’ve managed to remove the brick wall, at least, for now.

How To Develop A Genealogy Timeline

There are many ways to develop a timeline. A basic timeline can be as simple as a list of dates and events. Tools such as Microsoft® Word or Excel are great for creating standard text timelines. Some genealogy research sites provide timelines with membership. provides a brief narrative and timeline of events for each person in a family tree. More visual timelines include graphics, photos, and short narratives. Timeline software such as timeglider™, Genelines, and Twile (currently free) create more visually striking timelines.

What To Include In Your Genealogy Timeline

What should you include in a timeline? At a minimum, you should include the following details:

  1. A specific period. In the timeline above, I started with 1880 since my grandfather was born in 1892. I did this to allow for any major historical or family events that may have affected his early life. I’m not sure at this point, so I may adjust this date later.
  2. The life of a single ancestor. Other people will be included as you note marriages, births of children, and deaths of key family members.
  3. Vital statistics such as birth, marriage, religious milestones, deaths, and burials.
  4. Key life events like immigration, naturalization, military service, court rulings, high school and college graduation, employment, and business ownership.
  5. Census records, land grants, pension applications, Social Security applications and claims, court rulings, and real estate transactions.
  6. Locations of all events.
  7. Historical events on both a local and global level. As shown on my grandfather’s partial timeline, I highlighted a few of the major wars, the year the United States received the most Italian immigrants and other notable events.
  8. The source for each fact shown in the timeline.

Actively analyze your timeline. If you’re using a software program to develop your program, use the comment feature to note inconsistencies, develop questions, or write notes to yourself. If not, keep a list of observations or questions on a separate sheet of paper using a numbering scheme to correlate the questions to the right place in the timeline. You’ll be surprised how quickly clues emerge that you may have overlooked before.

New to genealogy? Read my article How To Start A Family Tree In Five Steps.

Author: Occasional Genealogist

Leave a Reply