Using Timelines in Your Research

by Donna Przecha

Timelines can be an interesting supplement to your genealogy research. A timeline is a chronological listing of historical events, a sort of "history in a nutshell" as it generally is limited to one line or very short entries. A timeline can be general and cover the history of the entire world or a small area such as one county or it can be for a specific subject, such as art, music, literature or war. A timeline can also take many forms — it can be in written form, either as a book or wall chart; it can be a list of events; or a database that can be used by itself or in conjunction with a genealogy program.

In school we usually study the large events and important people in world history. In genealogy, we are looking at individuals who usually had no influence at all on history but were deeply affected by it. A timeline can help you put the two types of study together. You may not know why your ancestors emigrated when they did, but a timeline may remind you that they left after a war had swept through their part of the world. We tend to compartmentalize study because we simply cannot comprehend everything at once. We study U.S. history and then we study Russian history or we study music but don't relate it to art which was happening at the same time.

It is sometimes startling to realize what events were happening simultaneously. In 1778 George Washington defeated the British at Monmouth, NJ, while Beethoven was being presented as an infant prodigy (at six, although he was really eight) and James Cook was discovering Hawaii. In 1642, the English Civil War began, Rembrandt painted The Night Watch, Galileo died, Isaac Newton was born, Tasman discovered New Zealand and Montreal, Canada was founded. While the American Revolution was occurring, Haydn and Mozart were writing music and Beethoven was beginning to compose. Also, Gibbon was writing Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Voltaire, Hume, Adam Smith, R. B. Sheridan, Schiller, Stendhal and Washington Irving were all writing and the Montgolfier brothers ascended in a balloon in France.

Timelines Online

If you put "timeline" and "history" into your favorite Internet search engine you will see there are several timelines on the Web relating to various areas and subjects. Since the timelines from the Web are basically text items, you could also edit these and customize to include events that were significant to your family. For example, if your families were early settlers in Illinois, you might be interested in a timeline of the history of Illinois giving the dates of early settlement, wars that affected the area, statehood, important elections, etc.

Weaving Your Family into a Timeline

You can also create your own timelines by hand, but when a timeline feature is incorporated into a genealogy program, you can display timeline events in with the events in your ancestors' lives. While one timeline database may be fairly general, being able to select from different timeline databases allows you to choose a set of events that may have been of more interest to your family. You also want to be able to turn off a timeline as all those extra events can be quite annoying when you are simply working on your database. You may be able to incorporate a timeline into some of your reports also.

The following example shows how a timeline can add another dimension to a family history. All that is known of Johannes Christian N?chter is that he was a farmer, had six children that were all born in the same house in a small village and five of those children went to America. It sounds pretty dull until you add in a timeline of German history:

                   Johannes Christian N?chter 
      Birth*     28 Mar 1771     Hessen-Nassau, Prussia.
   Marriage*     __ ___ ____     Anna Katharina Wiegand 
        Son:     13 Dec 1803     Jakob N?chter (1803-); 
                                 Unterstork, Hessen-Nassau,
                 __ ___ 1805     Napoleon conquered Germany.
        Son:     26 Feb 1805     Joseph N?chter (1805-1854);
                                 Unterstork, Hessen-Nassau,
                 02 Dec 1805     Battle of Austerlitz.
                                 Napoleon defeated Austrian-
                                 Russian army.
        Son:     22 Aug 1806     Peter N?chter (1806-1868);
                                 Unterstork, Hessen-Nassau,
                 14 Oct 1806     Battle of Jena-Auerstadt.
                                 Napoleon defeated Prussian army.
        Son:     24 Mar 1808     Bonifacius (Bonaparte) N?chter
                                 (1808-1891); Unterstork,
                                 Hessen-Nassau, Prussia 
   Daughter:     13 Jan 1810     Elisabeth Katharina N?chter 
                                 (1810-); Unterstork, Hessen-
                                 Nassau, Prussia
   Daughter:     30 Aug 1811     Anna Katharina N?chter Nichter
                                 (1811-); Unterstork, Hessen-
                                 Nassau, Prussia
                 __ Oct 1813     Battle of Leipzig.
                                 Napoleon defeated by Allies 
                                 (mainly: Russia, Prussia,
                                 Austria, England)
                 __ Sep 1814     Congress of Vienna began.
                 __ Jun 1815     Congress of Vienna ended.
                 05 May 1818     Karl Marx born. Mainly known for 
                                 his theory about Communism and 
                 28 Nov 1820     Friedrich Engels born. Together 
                                 with Karl Marx, developed the 
                                 theory of Communism and 
                 __ ___ 1830     German immigrants to America 
                                 numbered 10,000 to 20,000 yearly 
                                 from 1817 through 1830.
                 __ Mar 1848     German revolution. Liberals and 
                                 Democrats were trying to 
                                 overthrow the royal class. It 
                                 had to fail, since it couldn't 
                                 establish real political 
                                 authority without the support of 
                                 the military, which was loyal to 
                                 the royal class.
                 __ ___ 1850     German immigrants to America 
                                 totaled 587,000 from 1831 to 
                 __ ___ 1864     Prussian - Danish War.
                 15 Jun 1866     Prussian - Austrian war started.
                 23 Aug 1866     Prussian - Austrian war ended 
                                 with Prussia's victory.
                 19 Jul 1870     France declared war against 
                 18 Jan 1871     Declaration of German Reich in
                                 Versailles (near Paris).
                 06 May 1871     French - Prussian war ended with
                                 Prussia's victory.

What turbulent times those must have been! Napoleon's army must have swept back and forth across where he lived. (The family must not have received ill treatment from the French since one of his sons was known as Bonaparte throughout his life.) His poor wife must have worried that her children would get caught up in all the war raging around them. It was clearly an unhappy time for many Germans as can be seen from the number of immigrants. Five of his children were amongst those numbers. Perhaps he was glad they had escaped to American when the revolution came in 1848. We don't know when Johannes died but if he lived to 1864 he must have hated seeing all the wars start again. He was probably never aware of Marx and Engels but he shared the times with these men who had such an important impact on world history. Of course, Johannes may not have concerned himself with anything beyond his horse and pigs, but it does create interesting possibilities!

There is a different type of report that is also called a timeline. This is in the form of a chart with years written across the top — 1700, 1720, 1740, etc. Below this are names of individuals, either from your database or historical figures, with a line extending across the years when this person lived. In this way you can see how your various ancestors in different geographical locations were contemporaries. You can also see what famous composers, writers or rulers lived at the time of your ancestors.

1760    1780    1800    1810    1820    1840    1860    1880    1900
     ----Napoleon (1769-1821)----
                               --Karl Marx (1818-83)------
                                ---Friedrich Engels (1820-95)--
      --Johannes N?chter (1771-?)--------
                       --Peter N?chter (1806-68)------
                      -Joseph N?chter (1805-54)    
                       -Bonaparte N?chter (1808-91)------------

Timelines can make genealogy more interesting and meaningful. If you have an opportunity, try using them.

About the Author

I began genealogy in 1970 when we were living in Ogden, Utah for a short time. I was immediately hooked when, on my first visit to the local Family History Center, I found my great-grandparents in the 1850 Ohio census. I have been researching ever since on my own family and for others. I soon recognized the value of computer programs for keeping track of the data. I was a founding member of the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego and editor of the newsletter. I have written a third party manual on ROOTS III and, with Joan Lowrey, authored two guides to genealogy software. Using ROOTS III and WordPerfect, I have written several family history books for others, but have yet to stop researching long enough to complete my own family history!

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