3 Types of Timelines for Genealogy Research

methods & strategies Aug 27, 2020

Timelines—one of my favorite genealogy research tools! Just the process of building a timeline can help your research immensely, as you will typically start to see patterns, discrepancies, or missing information that need further investigation. And, if your a visual person like me, timelines provide a visual tool for you to better analyze the data you’ve collected.

Let’s take a look at the three types of timelines and how they can help you in your research.

1. Basic

This is the most common type of timeline and provides a visual depiction of the events in a ancestor’s life. Events could include: birth, marriage(s), death; births and deaths of children, spouse(s), and parents; residence(s); military service; occupation(s); land transactions; school attendance; etc.

 A basic timeline offers you the ability to:

  • Narrow down where events took place (for example, if the person lived in one location over the span of several years, children born in that time period were likely born in or near that location).
  • Identify discrepancies, such as children born too close together, children born after mother dies, etc.
  • Determine instances where people of the same name are merged together (this usually becomes apparent when analyzing a timeline).
  • Discover places to look for records.
  • Evaluate large gaps of time to further your research.

2. Comparative

This type of timeline can be useful when you want to compare the events in two or more individual’s lives. For example, let’s say there is a question as to when and where a couple was married. You could plot information for both the bride and the groom to narrow down the likely time and place.

 One of the best uses of a comparative timeline is answering questions of identity. Just as the basic timeline can help identify when two (or more) individuals of the same name get merged together, the comparative timeline can help determine whether two or more individuals are actually one. For example, you may come across instances of name changes, the use of an alias, or a same-name individual ending up in an unlikely place. Tracing each “identity” and comparing them to one another can help you determine if it’s possible they are the same person. Similarly, comparative timelines can also help you sort out people of same name in the same location at the same time.

3. Historical

One way to put your ancestor in historical context is to create a timeline that depicts or incorporates historical events. Placing an ancestor in historical context can help you understand why an ancestor did what they did and get to known them better. A historical timeline can also help you identify additional research opportunities. For example, if you find there is a gap of children born to a couple during a war, it could mean that the father was away serving in the war, leading you to investigate this theory further.

There you have it—three types of timelines and how each might help you with your research projects!

Take a moment and think about a project that could benefit from creating one of the timeline types above.

Are you trying to identify gaps in research? Perhaps a basic timeline depicting all of the known events in your ancestor’s life would be a good place to start.

Are you working on a question of identity? Perhaps creating a comparative timeline will help you sort things out.

Are you curious as to what historical events took place during your ancestor’s lifetime and how they might have affected your ancestor? Perhaps tracing the events in a historical timeline will give you some perspective.

Pick one project to start with. What is the problem you are trying to solve and which type of timeline could help? Head over to the discussion of this post on Facebook to share what you plan to work on. Then, carve out some time this week to work on building your chosen timeline.


P.S. Creating timelines is a great strategy for breaking down brick walls. For more strategies, download my free guide.


© Julie Tarr. This article was first published at Genealogy In Action; appearance of this article elsewhere, without my permission, violates copyright.

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