Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Using Time Lines as a Family History Writing Tool

The thing I enjoy most about writing family stories for my two blogs, Family Stories: Photographs and Memories, and The Other Half of my Tree - Stories of my female ancestors, is putting together all the different snippets of information that I have gathered.  I love piecing together dates of birth, death and marriages with newspaper clippings and events of the day into a short story that reveals a little about a particular ancestor.

This is often a difficult task, especially when of writing about female family members.  So today I thought I would share with you the tool I find the most helpful.    A time line of events in their life! 

There are many different programs and apps designed to assist you with this task, for example: Easy Timeline Maker, Timeline Builder, Capzles, Tiki-Toki and Timeglider to name a few. However, I have found the most useful form  is to create a simple time line in Excel. 

To show how I use this format, I will share with you a section of the time line I developed when researching Elizabeth Taylor (nee Rushworth). I wrote a series of blogs on Elizabeth's life, and it is my hope in "time to come" to will be able to write a short book on her fascinating story.

Part of Time Line for Elizabeth Taylor (nee Rushworth)
Using an Excel Sheet I enter every little bit of information that I can find. It is important to remember, in the case of women, to record all the dates and events of the male members of her family as these are often more easily found and will add background to her story:

  • birth, death and marriage dates (bdm) for the person with details of place etc 
  • bdm dates for their children, parents, siblings, grandparents, Aunts and Uncles, if they occur during the person's life time line.
  • census dates, with details of where they lived
  • dates they started and finished school
  • dates of illnesses, or other life events that you know about
  • details from any newspaper articles that you have been able to find on them, i.e.winning prizes in the local show for flower arrangement, being involved in an accident, receiving an award
  • military service of the person or a family member
  • immigration, travel
  • land or business ownership
  • courtcases
and the list goes on.  

Then, on the same excel spreadsheet, I build another timeline of events that could have impacted on Elizabeth Taylor's life. This is, I think the key to putting your ancestor's story together and places it in context.

Examples of events that should be included into the supporting time line are:

  • Start and finish dates of Wars, eg WWI, Crimean War
  • Times of economic depression, eg start of the Potato Famine, cotton famine
  • Launch of post office savings scheme, first postal service
  • Establishment of Trade Unions
  • Workers strikes
  • Events in the town, ie Establishment of local Borough, or council, building of schools, starting of hospital or ambulance service, opening of Town Hall
  • Women given the right to own property
  • Laws passed to make it compulsory for children to attend school
  • Visits from dignitaries, major sporting events, opening of local cinema, Circus comes to town
  • Natural disasters such as  disease outbreaks, storms, floods and droughts
Searching for this information can take time, however today with access to so many online newspapers, and historical sites there is a lot of information available to plump out the details of your ancestors life.  I have even found it possible to go search the local newspaper on the date of an important event, ie wedding and found the weather forecast for the day.

Often, a small piece of information entered into the second part of the time line will give meaning to an event in your ancestors life.  For example an outbreak of typhoid and the death of a number of family members at the same time, or trade union strikes or closing down of a local factory could explain why your ancestor decides to move to another village or district or even immigrate.

The development of a time line is vital to gain an understanding of the setting of your ancestors life and helps put life events into a clear frame of reference with the lives of their families, events in their community and outside influences.  Do you use timelines when researching your ancestors?  Do you have any other suggestions for the composing these stories?


  1. Thanks, great idea this really helps flesh out some bare bones details.

  2. My pleasure, I forgot to mention that I colour code things like changes of residences, see yellow highlighted lines on the picture above.

  3. I think timelines are so important in family history in putting our ancestors' lives in the wider context of local, national and Internationale events and social developments that impacted on their everyday lives. I include a timeline as an appendix in my family history narratives, highlighting events in my ancestor's lives and what was going on in the world around them. For each chapter or profile of an ancestor, I include a text box featuring a few events that took place in their lifetime, and this seems to be a well liked approach. You are so well organized and focused in the way you collate your information, and thank you for raising it as something that can improve our family history writing.

  4. Hi Diane - I think the way you have done the timelines is very elegant. I have indeed used timelines in the past but your approach looks more consistent, less haphazard :) Regards Anne

  5. Timelines are indeed a vital tool in family history research, and they often reveal gaps that need to be investigated. My genealogy database programme is The Master Genealogist, and its 'Person View' is essentially a timeline for that person - with the option to also display historical timelines such as 'dates of interest throughout British history' and (created by Caroline Gurney) 'important dates in the development of parish registers in England and Wales'.

    1. Judy, Where can we find this 'dates of interest throughout British history' and (created by Caroline Gurney) 'important dates in the development of parish registers in England and Wales'? Thank you, Missy

    2. Judy, Where can we find this 'dates of interest throughout British history' and (created by Caroline Gurney) 'important dates in the development of parish registers in England and Wales'? Thank you, Missy

  6. I haven't commented on this post yet because it is so good and has set me to thinking. Can I create timelines for individuals within my Family Histoian database and export and combine them in an excel or Google spreadsheet? If it can be done it would svae a lot of rekeying of data. I will try this and report on if it works.
    Thanks for being creating the spark that got me tining along these lines.

    1. Thank you! Yes - Family Tree Builder (My Heritage) has a Timeline function which when exported as RTF can then be used to Paste Special to put into Excel or just Paste into Google sheets.

  7. What a great idea, looking forward to hearing how it goes. I also forgot to mention, as your data is in excel, you are able to search the document. Great tool if there is a lot of detail, as the one I have set up for Elizabeth Rushworth.

  8. I use timelines for various ancestors that I place the details on my website. I have not used it in Excel but this a great idea. Time lines of course also show what we don't know, where there are gaps! Thanks for the details of apps and programs. Whilst I will probably explore with Excel I might dabble with those too!

  9. Diane,

    I want to let you know that your post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2014/09/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-september.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  10. I've heard about creating timelines and have planned to do it, but I haven't actually given it a try yet! I will try it & see how it works! Thanks for sharing the details of how you make one in Excel. (By the way, I think you have her birthdate as 19xx instead of 18xx.)

    1. thanks for the pick up, have her bday as 1841, but I noticed above that I have 1940. enjoy setting up your excel timeline

  11. Congratulations for being mentioned by Randy Seaver's best of the Genea blogs at http://www.geneamusings.com/2014/09/best-of-genea-blogs-7-to-13-september.html

  12. wow that is exciting.Thank you Randy.

  13. I have read many ways to incorporate timelines, and have pulled in historical happenings into my stories, but I like the way that you do it using excel. Thanks!

  14. Your timelines are very thorough Diane. I should be doing more of it rather than just focusing on my problem people. Agree that it's so important to look at the social context. A great post -lots of food for action as well as thought!

  15. When I looked at the detail in the entries I noticed she came from Colne and Barnoldswick. Let me know if you trip over any Widdups. John Widdup was my ancestor's brother-in-law. I guess you know about the website for the area?

  16. Thanks Pauline, I find it fascinating putting all the bits and pieces in, and building up a picture. I haven't come across the Widdups, do you have any other surnames from that area? I spent a month in Foulridge last year (just outside Colne) doing family tree research. It is a fascinating area, I spent a lot of time visiting local cemeteries, churches libraries etc. Which website did you mean? The Lancashire Archives?-=

  17. Although time consuming this project seems well worth the effort to piece together an ancestor's life.


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