Using historical timelines will put your ancestors into context with the world in which they lived. Your ancestors were affected by the world around them. In addition to building a timeline with an ancestor’s life events, be sure to include local, world, and social history events. These pertinent dates can be added to the timeline and may help to explain why your ancestor made a decision he or she made.
A timeline lists the events in an ancestor’s life in chronological order. This is a helpful tool to analyze the information you have collected, to help pinpoint social history events related to your ancestor’s life, and is a good first step toward writing your ancestor’s life.
This method can be used for a handwritten timeline or one created on the computer using either a word processing or spreadsheet program:
- In the far left column of the paper, chronologically list years beginning with the year your ancestor was born and ending with his or her death date (or the current year if he or she is still living).
- Create a narrow column just to the right of the first column and, beginning with the second line, number sequentially beginning with the number “1.” This column will show the age of your ancestor in any given year. This column is particularly helpful when entering marriage dates and birth dates of children. You will be able to see, at a quick glance, the age of your ancestor when different life events occurred.
- The remaining space on each line will be used to enter life events. Fill in everything you know: marriage dates, migration dates, immigration, birth dates of children, death dates of parents, real estate purchases, military service…the list can go on, but you get the idea.
- Your ancestors were affected by the world around them. Incorporate local, world, and social events that affected their lives. These pertinent dates can be added to the timeline and may help to explain why your ancestor made a decision he or she made. Do not list extraneous events that are irrelevant, but do include those events that impacted your ancestors or the community in which they lived.
- As you review your documents chronologically and add pieces of information to the timeline, keep in mind the idea that your ancestor was a piece of a larger whole. The timeline will help you to keep your ancestor in context with his or her community.
Early Colonial Era Timeline year-by-year to 1700: A chronology of early American history from Leif Ericson’s journey to the east coast of the New World through the year 1700.
Timeline of the American Revolutionary War: Beginning with events leading up to the war through to the end of the war.
Timeline of the U.S. Civil War 1861-1865: Detailed timeline of the Civil War, with photos, from The History Place.
Brief Timeline of American Literature and Events, Pre-1620 to 1920: This timeline provides a short chronology of events in American history and literature.
The History Place World War II Timeline: A chronology of the events leading up to World War II and continuing through the war years, this timeline spans the years 1918 through 1945.
A Chronology of US Historical Documents: From the University of Oklahoma College of Law, a helpful website that shows the dates of important documents in US history.
Inventions Timeline: Important inventions presented in chronological order, along with the names of the inventors.
Immigration Timeline: The forces behind immigration and their impact on the immigrant experience is presented by the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation.
This bibliography offers a wide variety of helpful books to get you started. This is by no means an exhaustive list but merely offers suggestions to get you thinking about the variety of timeline books available. Many of these books are available at your local library, favorite book store, or online at Amazon.com.
Blackman, Cally. 100 Years of Fashion. Laurence King Publishing, 2012. ISBN 1856697983.
Bluhm, Raymond K. World War II: A Chronology of War. Universe Publishers, 2008. ISBN 0789399830.
Dougherty, Kevin and Jason Stewart. The Timeline of the Vietnam War (World History Timeline. Thunder Bay Press, 2008. ISBN 1592238602.
Hendrickson, Nancy. The Genealogist’s U.S. History Pocket Reference: Quick Facts & Timelines of American History to Help Understand Your Ancestors. Family Tree Books, 2013. ISBN 1440325278.
Homberger, Eric. The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of 400 Years of New York City’s History. Holt Paperbacks, 2005. ISBN 0805078428.
Katcher, Phillip. The Civil War Day by Day. Chartwell Books, 2010. ISBN 0785826645.
Miller, James, John Thompson, and Hugh Ambrose. National Geographic Almanac of American History. National Geographic, 2007. ISBN 1426200994.
Trager, James. The Food Chronology: A Food Lover’s Compendium of Events and Anecdotes, from Prehistory to the Present. Owl Books, 1997. ISBN 080505247x.
Urdang, Lawrence. The Timetables of American History: History and Politics, the Arts, Science and Technology, and More in America and Elsewhere. Touchstone, 2001. ISBN 0743202619.
Waisman, Charlotte S. Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. William Morrow Paperbacks, Reprint edition, 2013. ISBN 0062113968.
Westwell, Ian. World War I Day by Day. Chartwell Books, 2012. ISBN 0785829458.
Updated July 2017