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October 11, 2019

Time Machines

On your ancestor hunts, have you ever wished someone would invent a time machine so that you could travel back in time to visit with your ancestor and ask a few pertinent questions?  I have a list of questions that I would like my ancestors to answer.

I had a patron ask me why her ancestor shows up in Hamilton County on the 1870 census when he was in Ohio prior to 1870 and was in Illinois on the 1880 census.  What was happening here in Hamilton County to attract that ancestor to this area?  My first thought was to search for a timeline of events in Hamilton County and look at some county histories for information to help with that.  Newspapers would be helpful it there any printed around that time or preserved from that time. Alternatively, we could starting building that time machine!

Since time travel at this time is not happening, you could create a timeline for your ancestor and include historical events that happened during your ancestor’s lifetime. This means you need to do some background research in county histories, local newspapers, and any government documents created at that time.

To develop a timeline on your ancestor, start with the birth date and birth location.  Jump ahead and end the timeline with the death date and death location followed by the burial date and place of burial.  Now you need to fill out the space between the birth and death years.

Start with the census years on which your ancestor should be listed.  Add city directory listings during your ancestor’s lifespan. If your ancestor married, add the spouse name, marriage date, and marriage location.  Did your ancestor have any children?  You will want to add their names, birth dates and birth locations, and death dates and locations if the child died during the lifespan of the parent.

Now that you have some dates and locations, search for historical events.  There are history timelines for national events online.  Search the local county histories for events that occurred in the location and time your ancestor lived.  Check out the newspapers online and/or on microfilm.  If you find an epidemic occurred during the time a child died, check out the death certificate for cause of death.  Timelines can help you answer the why and how questions you might have on your ancestor.

If you have an online tree at Ancestry.com, you can see how the facts you gathered are placed in chronological order, in other words, the facts form a timeline.  You can add historical events and family events, as well as, the ancestor’s life events.

Part of timeline for Waldo Block's profile on Ancestry.com.

Part of timeline for Waldo Block’s profile on Ancestry.com.

Family events added to Waldo Block's timeline

Family events added to Waldo Block’s timeline

When you compile a timeline for your ancestor, you should cite your sources for that information.  Source citations help you go back to the original source if necessary.  On Ancestry, when you click on a fact, it points to the source on the immediate right of the timeline as shown in the first picture. In case you are wondering, creating an online family tree on Ancestry.com is free.  However, when you click on the leaf hints, you need to subscribe to view the hint.  Alternatively, you can search for that information on the library’s subscription to Ancestry Library Edition.

Ancestry’s life story page is another timeline created by the facts you found on your ancestor.

Waldo Block's life story timeline with historical insights added.

Waldo Block’s life story timeline with historical insights added.

When you click on review, you can view a short description and photos about that particular historical event. You can choose to ignore the historical event if you wish.

Composing a timeline on paper works just as well. The steps are simple.  Gather all the records you have on an ancestor and organize them by date. Create an entry for each record including pertinent information and the source citation. The date for each entry is first, followed by the information, and the source citation.  Feel free to include a transcription of the record.

Word processing software allows flexibility to include as much or as little information needed to make the entry.  Whenever you discover new information, be sure to update your timeline.

Timelines can highlight gaps in your research.  They can organize the biographical sketch or narrative on your ancestor by providing a framework.  They can uncover conflicting information from multiple sources. Recording the source citations allows you to analyze the conflicting information and alert you to the need for further research.

OK, a time machine may be more fun to imagine, but a timeline is more practical and doable.  The next time an elusive ancestor stumps you, create a timeline for him or her. See if organizing the facts in chronological order helps.