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9 Reasons to use a timeline in your family history research

Are you using a timeline to record all your genealogical research? If not, read on for 9 reasons why you should.

Picture of Journal and Laptop from

Reason 1

It won't prove someone is your ancestor, but it can prove they are not.

For example, I found a record showing Michael Frawley was a publican in Emu Creek in 1875. Emu Creek was right next door to Axe Creek where my great grandfather Michael Frawley was born and raised so it must be him right? Wrong. As soon as I put the information into Michael's timeline, it showed me he was only 12 years old at the time and much too young to hold a publican's licence. So I could definitely rule out this person as being my Michael Frawley.

Reason 2

A timeline keeps your research organised in one place and in chronological order.

We all know how much material - paper and digital - we accumulate during our family history research. I'm often asked by clients and friends, "How do I organise it all?" My advice always includes taking the information and putting it into a timeline for each individual.

Reason 3

It reminds you of what information you have already and where you have already searched successfully. When researching multiple branches of a family tree it is easy to forget what we have done already. When using a timeline you can see at a glance what you have. You can also see where you have duplicated information. The extract below is a good example. I can see I entered the same information twice. I can delete the first instance of 1918 Residence because the second instance has the same plus additional details.

Reason 4

It highlights inconsistent information.

For example, you might have records showing two different birth dates or different parents. As this will show up in your timeline, you will ask yourself Why ? This in turn will prompt you try and resolve the inconsistencies.

Example of a timeline - extract from the author's timeline

Above: An extract from the timeline I created in for my great grandfather, Michael Frawley, mentioned above under Reason 1.

Reason 5

A timeline can highlight when you have the right name in the wrong generation.

For example, I have 5 successive generations where father and son were named George Wild. It does my mind in at times and it's all too easy to get the generations confused. By entering information into a timeline, you're more likely to notice when you have made a mistake. If George Wild was 117 when his first son was born, or his date of birth is after his date of death, then it is a good indication that you made a mistake and confused the generations - a mistake that needs to be fixed pronto.

Reason 6

It's easy to find particular aspects of your research

If you adopt the discipline of entering your research results into a timeline (particularly in a digital format), it is much easier to find things than if you have to search through a pile of papers or scan through notebook pages looking for something.

Reason 7

A timeline makes it easy to identify gaps in your information and thus inform more research effort.

For example, you will readily see in a timeline when you have census records for an ancestor in 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1881 but are missing 1871. Finding the 1871 census record goes on to your To Do research list.

Reason 8

Your time is a logical place to store details of your sources alongside your ancestors' information.

Recording where you found your individual family history records is an important genealogical discipline. The extract above from one of my ancestor's timelines is an example of how to do this. Learn from my own and many other people's mistakes. In the very early days of my family history research I didn't bother too much about recording exactly where I found information. I lived to regret it when I couldn't remember how or where details came from. I later spent precious research time retracing my steps just to capture my sources.

Reason 9

It's easier to write stories or your family saga from a timeline

With all your research data organised in a timeline, it provides a good reference point and launch pad when it's time to write family stories or your family saga. Include your sources when entering information into your timeline (see Reason 8 above) and writing your citations becomes much easier and quicker when the time comes.

Timeline tools

There are many ways to create a timeline and my preferred method is in a dedicated genealogical software program. It doesn't matter whether you purchase your own or use one of the commercial online service providers such as FindMyPast ($) (an affiliate*), Ancestry ($) or FamilySearch (free).

If you're just starting out, you can use a word processing program or better still a spreadsheet. But I suggest you move to a dedicated digital tool as soon as possible. You won't be sorry.


Using timelines in your family history is best practice. Notebooks, journals, writing pads, index cards, notes in a word processing document, photos of documents, etc. still have a role to play in your research. But do yourself a favour - take the information you find and record it in a timeline for each person you are researching.

Need some help?

If some or all your family history research is in a stack of notebooks or something similar, and you don't have time to convert it into a timeline, don't forget I'm available to help. Just drop me a line for a free quote.

What do you use?

What sort of timeline do you use? Let me know in the Comments Section below. And of course if you have any questions about creating or using timelines, don't hesitate to ask me.


Your Family Genealogist

* FindMyPast is one of my affiliates. That means I receive a small commission from any business generated from via website, however, this is at no cost to you.

Pictures : Pixabay and Ancestry

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