The widespread availability of so many records allows us to really delve into our ancestors’ lives. The trick is to organize what we know in such a way that it puts their lives into perspective. Independently, the records we find are just scattered pieces of the puzzle, but when we organize them and make them fit together, we begin to see the picture taking shape.
Chronologies or timelines allow us to view an ancestor’s life in context. While many family history programs and online trees do this to some extent, they typically don’t include all the details. Creating a timeline in a word processor is a simple and effective way to organize the details you’ve collected. As a bonus, when you take the time to put a chronology together yourself (as opposed to having a computer program automatically do it for you), you’ll be examining the details in the records more closely and clues are more likely to jump out at you. (Tip: Keep a to-do list handy to capture new research ideas as they pop up.)
Census records can create a great framework to start your chronology. Then fill in the gaps between them with birth dates (estimated from censuses where necessary), state census records, city directories, immigration records, and other records. Record all dates—both those that are directly stated in a record and those that are implied (e.g., a date of immigration as referenced by dates and varying places of birth).
Be sure to include sources for each event. As you add entries, you may run into contradictory information from other sources. Having the sources included allows you to weigh the evidence and determine which record is more likely to be accurate.
Add Non-Family Events
Once you’ve filled in births, marriages, immigration dates or moves, occupation changes, deaths, and other family events, it’s time to add in some non-family events. Knowing what was happening in the places where your family lived can add to the story and provide clues as to where you will find your ancestor’s records. Consider adding these events to your timeline.
County Formation. Your ancestor may have lived in different counties without even moving to a new location. Over the years many county (and some state) boundaries have been redrawn and new counties formed from parts of older ones. These boundary changes could impact where the records your ancestor left are kept.
Church Formations and Closings. If your ancestor was part of a religious community, knowing the formation dates and closings of churches in the area can be helpful in locating religious records. Your ancestor may have changed congregations as new churches opened, particularly if that church shared their ethnic background.
Weather and Other Natural Phenomena. Significant weather events and other forces of nature are important to include and can lead us to a better understanding of the family. For example, following a severe drought in 1860, many former Iowans who had moved to Kansas, were reported to be returning to Iowa in an article from the “The Burlington Weekly Hawkeye,” (Burlington, Iowa), 25 August 1860, page 1.
THE RETURNING TIDE.—On Monday last we noticed a train of movers, with some fifty head of cattle and other stock, returning from Kansas, whither they went from Cedar county, Iowa, last spring. The great drouth [sic] and other discouraging circumstances in Kansas induced them to leave that Territory after a short residence . . . The returning tide from Missouri and Kansas into Iowa is large and increasing . . . Those who leave Iowa expecting to find a better land will almost surely be mistaken.—[Oskaloosa Herald.]
To locate weather events, simply consider the area in which they lived. Were there waterways nearby that may have flooded? Those ancestors involved in agrarian pursuits may have been affected by drought, pests, or blights that ravaged crops, heavy rains, cold and extended winters, and any other event that could have disrupted their livelihood. Did they live along a coastline that may have been hit by hurricanes? Were tornadoes or earthquakes a common hazard in their part of the world?
Epidemics also had a huge impact on many of our forebears, particularly those in urban environments where contagious diseases were easily passed to others. Not only could our ancestors have lost family members to diseases, some may have chosen to leave during an outbreak rather than risk infection.
Transportation. Sometimes large-scale migrations may have been the result of opportunity rather than natural disasters. The following article found in the “Reno Evening Gazette” (Reno, Nevada), 16 April 1889, page 1, talks about the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889.
If you’re trying to understand a period when your ancestor went missing, making note of events like gold and silver rushes, the availability of land, new modes or routes of transportation like railroads, canals, new roads, faster ships and other advances may provide the clues we need to follow up in other locations.
War. Did a military conflict impact your ancestors? Including wars in your timeline can alert you to the possibility of a family member’s military service. If great-great-grandma’s brother served in the Civil War, his pension papers may include a wealth of information on other family members. Also look to see what battles took place nearby the places where your ancestor lived.
Local events may have altered the course of our ancestors' lives. Learning about them can help us to better understand our ancestors and the decisions they made and will provide vital clues in seeking more records to document their lives.
Juliana Smith has been an teaching family history at Ancestry.com through articles and online classes for more than 15 years.