In both the Winter 2010 Genea-Blogger Games (Category 4, Task B) and the upcoming 91st Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy, using a timeline of your ancestor's life is suggested for organizing your information for your research and your blogging. There are all kinds of genealogy and history software and websites that can generate timelines for your ancestors which will list many of the historical events that happened in your ancestor's life. These are great tools, but I'd also like to suggest something very simple to start with. Before you get going with all the major historical events in your ancestor's life, have you truly documented all the major life events? These would include births, marriages, and deaths for your ancestor's parents, siblings, spouses, children, and grandchildren, as well as censuses, military service, migration, land purchases, etc.
I started out by creating and using a very simple Timeline form (found online here - http://tinyurl.com/Miriam-timeline). There are 40 lines (years) on this form and by printing it on both the front and back of a piece of paper it gave me 80 years...an average lifespan. For a few ancestors who lived past the age of 80, I needed another piece of paper printed on one side. Then I started with the year a particular ancestor was born (or the earliest I could estimate) and numbered every year of their life on the form. I filled in whatever information (events and locations) I could for as many years possible. I also wrote their age in the margin for every event. I listed where they were in census years, where they lived when their siblings or children were born or when close family members died. Every time I found them on a record, I wrote it down on the timeline. This did three things for me:
1. It gave me a chronology of the events of their life, as I knew it at that point.
2. It gave me a chronology of their locations, so I could see migration patterns.
3. Most importantly, it gave me a visual of the years where there are blanks (where I have no information about that ancestor's life!).
My genealogy software will show me the first two things, but not the last. I have heard professional genealogists state that good family research will account for an ancestor's whereabouts with gaps no more than two years apart! In other words, you should be able to find a record showing your ancestors' whereabouts every one to two years of their lives!
This timeline helped me immensely when reading about my husband's great-grandfather, Albert Francis CHAPLIN, I. According to a written history one of Norm's grandaunts wrote, the family moved back and forth between the West (Colorado, Washington, and Oregon) and the midwest (Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma). As this was the early 1900s and they were often traveling by covered wagon (and probably later by train), I wondered about this. Was Albert not able to find jobs? Did he have an itchy foot? Was the law after them? How could they afford to resettle every few years? When I put all the outlying events of his life (siblings' and parents' events) in order with his own life events, I saw that his widowed mother and single brothers back east all died within a short period of time. I had found him in Kansas in 1920 after living out West for many years. I realized that the family had gone back to Kansas, probably to help with the nursing of the relatives (many of them died of tuberculosis), taking care of the family farm, and settling the estate. I would never had figured this out if I hadn't used the timeline!