Using Timelines to Make Sense of Inconsistencies

Lately I’ve read a lot of blogs and articles that extol the virtues and emphasize the necessity of doing timelines. To be honest, I just didn’t think they were that necessary or helpful — but that was because I’d never done one! I felt (apparently overly) confident that since tended to list facts in order that if I just glanced through their timelines I wouldn’t need to do my own. Au contraire!

I just created my first two timelines for one set of confusing great great grandparents. (For this post I think it best to keep names out of it.) By creating a timeline I not only sorted out their rather confusing chronology of life events, but also discovered some facts that had not been readily apparent before doing this exercise.

The primary reason for my setting about to create these timelines was needing to sort out the birth of the great great grandparents’ youngest child. From all outward appearances – relying mainly on censuses – it appeared that my great great grandfather had left his family in Minnesota and moved to Washington – seemingly leaving my great great grandmother and their children alone to fend for themselves. Then I noticed that his youngest daughter was born well after he’d “disappeared” from their lives and moved to Washington. By creating timelines for each of them I discovered that his wife had in fact followed him to Washington – via South Dakota – and that their youngest child was actually born in Washington (and not South Dakota as reported on one of the census). While many questions remain that I have yet to unravel….at least I can follow their trail better by having created this timeline.

I learned something else while working on their timeline. I learned that their oldest son was born a full two years before they were married. His mother was only 17 at the time. When the couple did marry they lived with her parents. It appears to be a safe assumption that they let their daughter and grandson live with them before the marriage rather than turning them out. Interestingly, I discovered that the obituary for my great great grandmother that was published in a church magazine indicated that the marriage took place the year before the son was born. Since that information was provided to the church by a family member, I can’t help but wonder if the story passed down through the years was that the marriage took place before the child’s birth to legitimize him in the eyes of the family and the church.

Timelines certainly helped paint a clearer picture of the events in my great great grandparents’ lives. I may have eventually put all this together using other forms of analysis or observation – but the timelines made this process much easier and were well worth the time and effort. I’m now anxious to create these for other members of my tree — and I too can extol their virtues to others who wonder if they are a necessary part of genealogical research.


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