Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Tuesday's Tip: Timelines

Many of you are familiar with timelines in genealogy. A simple timeline can be a piece of paper in which you list all the known events of an ancestor’s life in chronological order, listing the locations of the events as well. This can give you an overview of your ancestor’s life and show migration patterns as he or she moves from one location to another.

However, there is one aspect of analyzing a timeline that was made very clear to me: It is looking at what is missing that is just as important as observing what is there. This hit home when I created a timeline on lined notebook paper for my children’s paternal ancestor, Albert Francis Chapin, Sr. It looked something like this:

  • 29 May 1868 - Birth - Afton, Union Co., Iowa
  • 1880 - Census - Dodge Twp., Union Co., Iowa
  • c. 1891 - Marriage - Iowa
  • 1900 - Census - Volin, Yankton Co., South Dakota
  • 1910 - Census - Lamar, Prowers Co., Colorado
  • 1920 - Census - Jaqua, Cheyenne Co., Kansas
  • 1930 - Census - South Fruitland, Payette Co., Idaho
  • 8 Jul 1946 - Death - Yakima, Yakima Co., Washington

In a family history, Albert’s sister had recorded that the family moved frequently between Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Oregon. I wondered why they had done so; guessing perhaps they were following crops, although nothing was said in the history about the family members being migrant workers. I felt frustrated by the timeline because it didn’t really seem to tell me much. I decided to re-create it on another piece of lined notebook paper, but this time, I used one line for every year of Albert’s life, from 1868 to 1946, and filled in the information I knew. This meant there were a lot of gaps. For instance, the there were twelve unaccounted-for years between Albert’s birth and when I could first locate him on a census, in 1880. There were nine years between that census and when he got married, and another nine years until the next census. Of course there were ten years between censuses, and 16 between the 1930 census and his death in 1946 (this was before the 1940 census was released). I remembered what Leslie Smith Collier had said in a presentation about timelines; that we should attempt to find our ancestors on records no less than every two years! Clearly, I was failing!

However, looking at all those blank lines started the creative juices flowing. I began to hunt through everything I knew about Albert. I started entering the dates his siblings were born, to fill in those early years between his birth and the 1880 census. Then I started entering when his children were born. I looked for state censuses to fill the decade-long gaps between the federal censuses, and lucky for me, he lived in several states that did have state censuses! I listed when his parents died, and later, as his siblings died. I added when his children married and his grandchildren were born. This didn't mean that he attended those events, or even lived in the same areas. As I filled out this timeline, I discovered something: Albert lived out west for most of his adult life, but as his single brothers passed away, he went back to the Midwest, staying for some time, as the state censuses testify, probably to help out on the family farm. It now made sense why his sister recorded that he had moved so frequently.

Here's the front page of my finished project. The highlighted lines are what I had originally, so you can see there were a lot of blanks! I have filled in quite a bit of info for Albert and his extended family.

click to enlarge

I started using this same technique on other ancestors. I took long, hard looks at those empty lines. I even created a form and uploaded it to my website for others to use. You can download it here and print it for your own use. When using these paper forms, I like to print on both sides of the page, as there are 40 lines on each side, giving me 80 years to list my info. For those ancestors that lived over 80 years, I add another sheet.

Eventually, I discovered a way to create an electronic timeline with Excel. I love using Excel for my data, because it is so easy to add another column or row for more categories. You can view and download a copy of my Excel spreadsheet at http://tinyurl.com/TuesTipTimelines (must use the uppercase letters). To download, go to File, then choose Download, and then Microsoft Excel.  After you have downloaded it to your computer, open it with Excel or any spreadsheet program you may have on your computer.  Do not try to use this online, as it is a locked template and must be downloaded first!

After you download it, you can make as many copies as you'd like for each of your family lines. I keep the original as a template, and then make a copy of it by right-clicking on the template and choosing Copy.

You can personalize your timeline by renaming it in the title field. When you do so, it appears to align the text to the left, rather than the center, but when you click the Enter key, it will realign to the center.

The first thing you will want to do is make a copy of each of these sheets for as many family members for which you would like a timeline, plus one. So if I had three family members that I wanted to do a timeline for, I would make four copies. The first step will be to right-click on Sheet1 at the bottom left of the spreadsheet and choose Move or Copy.

Choose to Copy before Sheet2. Make sure to check the Create a copy box. Then click OK.

Excel will copy all the info from Sheet1 to a sheet it calls Sheet1 (2). You want to make sure you haven't entered any data at this point, other than changing the title of the timeline.

Continue this process until you have as many sheets with the name Sheet1 as you need. It will look a little funky, but we'll soon change this. Your next step will be to rename the sheets for your ancestors. Right-click on Sheet1 and choose Rename. Then type the name of your ancestor.

Repeat this process for each of the ancestor's names. The final Sheet1 will be renamed Template. This will ensure that in the future, if you wish to make a copy of the form for other ancestors, you will have a nice, empty form to work with. Always make sure you have a template!

Now you are ready to fill in the years and ages of your ancestor's life and start adding data. Here's a quick tip for adding all the years and ages quickly. First, type in the first two years of your ancestor's life. Let's say he was born in 1881 and died in 1933. So I will type in 1881 and 1882. Then I will click on the cell that says 1881, hold down the Shift key and click on the down arrow key. This will select both cells.

Notice how there is a small black square in the lower right corner of the selected area. Hover your cursor over that square and notice how it changes from a wide white cross to a thin black one. Holding down your left mouse key, start dragging down this column of cells. You'll notice a date pop up to the left and change with each cell you pass in this column.

Drag all the way down to the desired year and then let go of the mouse key. Voila! Your years will all be in place!

Now repeat this for the age column:

You can insert extra lines for those years when there was more than one event. Let's say your ancestor married in 1900, the same year as the Federal Census. Click on the number of the row where you would like to insert another. In this case, I clicked on row 23 because I would like to insert a row there for the marriage date, and move everything down one row. Then I went to the ribbon (top menu) and chose Insert and then Insert Sheet Rows.

click to enlarge for better viewing

Finally, I entered the info. I changed the format of the cell by choosing Text from the drop down menu to reformat the cell. Otherwise I get a lot of weird symbols, such as #####.

click to enlarge for better viewing

There you have it! Two tools (paper and electronic) to help you analyze your research and look for "holes" to fill. Don't forget to go to the Timelines page at Cyndi's List to find lists of historic events, locality-specific timelines, and online interactive timelines to further understand the period and location in which your ancestors lived.

I hope these tools are useful to you in the analysis of your research!

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Nan Bailey said...

Thank you for sharing this great tool eith us all. Thiscwill be so useful and your tips for entering the years and ages are wonderful. That makes it do much easier.
I have used timelines before, but yours is so much better. Nan

Miriam Robbins said...

You are most welcome, Nan!

Burning River Genealogy said...

Hi Miriam! Love love love this post. Giving a presentation including timelines tomorrow night here in the greater Cleveland area and will be sharing your blog, and this great post with resources. Thank you! :)

Miriam Robbins said...

Hi, Cate! Thanks, and best of luck in your presentation!

Debbie D. said...

Just what I was looking for. Thank-you.

Miriam Robbins said...

Thanks for dropping by, Debbie!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much! This will help me so much in organization! Have a blessed day!

Unknown said...

Thanks so much ~ This was so helpful!

Miriam Robbins said...

Cathy, you are very welcome!