Timelines are a tool I have utilized for many years in my genealogy research. However, it is the use of timelines in my work as a historian that has made me truly appreciate their value.
This fall it will be 19 years since I first started researching my family tree on my own. I still have my early research files with hand drawn timelines. These early ones were bare bones, mostly done to help me track the overall migration of my ancestors.Some of them had random facts about historical events inserted that seemed relevant at the time. As my research skills have evolved over time, so have my timelines. This is not to say that these early timelines were not of any benefit- they certainly were as you have to know where to look and what time frame you need records from before you can do much!
While some may disagree with me on best practices, my timelines have become increasingly detailed. I have also largely moved away from including information about historical events unless it was something my ancestor was involved in. For example, if my ancestor was involved in a particular Civil War battle, I include the dates of that relate to the battle. The resulting product has allowed me to focus on the data I have about my ancestor, thereby making it easier for me to spot inconsistencies, recognize patterns, recognize what I don’t have, and ultimately knock down a few brick walls.
Currently, my primary project for my work as a historian is a biography about a steamboat captain. I first began work on this project in 2012 and it became my primary focus in 2015. It is a document and data heavy project. I have hundreds newspaper articles that relate to this project in some way, over eighty letters, and dozens of other documents. Organizing these documents and making sense of all of the data has been as great of a challenge as doing the actual research.
This particular captain poses his own challenges. He was always on the go during the steamboat season, traveled for business during the off-season, never married, and lived out of hotels. Tracking him has been “fun.” By utilizing a timeline for this project, I have first and foremost been able to maintain my grasp on my sanity.
Although there are a great many options for software and programs to create a timeline, as Wendy discussed in our last post, I use Microsoft Word. I use Word because, honestly, I am picky and generally favor simple layouts. My sources go in footnotes, as do research questions and action items. I put the last revision date in the footer.
The steamboat captain’s timeline is extremely detailed. It is that way because it must be that way. He may have been one place on one boat one month and someplace different on another boat two months later. The timeline assists me in tracking his movements while also helping identify any potential conflicts or problems. For example, he cannot have been in two places at once. There are also limitations on how fast he could have traveled from point A to point B. Data listed in a visual and chronological manner helps alert me that there is a problem with the source of that information. Sometimes the problem is in newspapers reporting or that the information is inaccurate.
Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Helena, Montana to conduct research at their state historical society. Rather than drag along copies of documents, I saved a copy of my timeline to Google Drive, with an additional copy on my tablet. My research trip was funded by a grant which meant I had limited financial resources and time. To be frank, I did not have the time to get through absolutely everything that I wanted. I had to be as effective of a researcher as possible. A line-by-line outline of his life helped me stay on track, particularly when I got excited by new information.
I am entering the final phases of my research into this particular steamboat captain. The timeline I have created has helped me identify which time frames and events within those time frames need a bit more work. Furthermore, since the biography will largely be organized chronologically, this timeline effectively serves as an early outline for my book. When people ask me how I have managed to accomplish what I have, I say that is largely in part to my use of a timeline.
Some of my ancestors’ timelines have gaps of ten, twenty years with no events listed. This is definitely not the case for my steamboat captain! Even a gap of six months is something I am trying to fix. Now, when I look at my ancestors’ timelines I think they are so empty! I’ve always liked to know more about my ancestors than just key dates. That desire is even stronger now and has influenced my decision to do a genealogy do-over of sorts. Adding names to family tree and going back further in time is exciting, but, I want to know more about the people whose names I already have on that tree.
How have timelines helped your research? How have they changed the way you research?