Building a Timeline of your ancestor’s life

Once you select an ancestor that you want to learn more about, one of the first steps is to build a timeline of that ancestor’s life. Start with the basics such as birth, marriage and death. Add other information such as moving to a new location, war(s) that the ancestor either fought in or lived through, births and deaths of her children, and other significant events. This information may come from documents or family legends. Either is OK to start, although you will eventually want to back up everything on this timeline with the appropriate documentation. The important thing is just to get it on paper, with dates if possible. Set it aside for a couple of days and then come back and see if you can add anything else.

Here are two examples of the same timeline. I did one in Excel and one in Word. The format doesn’t matter–just use whichever you are most comfortable with. Pen and paper work well too.

Levi Savage Timeline Excel

Levi Savage Timeline Word

It’s clear that I know a lot about Levi Savage. I could have included even more. Most of this is knowledge that I already have in my head from family stories and his diary, but as I start writing up his story, I need to cite sources such as diaries, vital records and census records.

Usually, however, we know much less about the ancestor that has been chosen. Let’s look at the Loyalist I mentioned in my first post. I know much less about him. What does his timeline look like?

Thomas Sumner timeline

Clearly, there is a lot more work to be done on this timeline.

But, whether you are starting with an ancestor about whom much is known, like Levi, or an ancestor like Thomas where much less is known, the process of fleshing out their lives through historical and social research is the same.

This week, create a timeline for the ancestor you have chosen. I’d love to hear feedback about what interesting things appear on your timeline.

A future post will discuss expanding these personal timelines by including external information on historical events, disasters and epidemics, wars and other important events.

Mourning Jewelry Exhibit at Massachusetts Historical Society

When I was a child, my grandparents displayed several family artifacts in the den. An intricately woven watch chain made of human hair was both fascinating and a bit frightening to me. When my 2nd great grandfather Harry was in jail for polygamy, his wife Ruth sent  him some of her hair and he made the watch chain.

Hair ornaments and jewelry were quite common in the 1800s, especially as mourning jewelry. Learn more about how ideas about death and mourning changed through the centuries and view some incredible mourning jewelry. The Massachusetts Historical Society in downtown Boston has an exhibit on the history of mourning jewelry covering the 1600s to the 1800s. This exhibit is open to the public and runs through January 31st. See here for more information.

Why social history?

Many family historians are most interested in finding new names, with accompanying dates and places, to add more branches to the family tree. While finding a new ancestor is very exciting, getting to know that ancestor is even more exciting. Think of an ancestor who spoke to you in some way, or to whom you feel a special connection.

What drew you to this ancestor? Was it the place from which he emigrated? Was it his occupation? Was it her participation in a historical event, or living during a historical period, that fascinates you?

Some of my ancestors that grabbed my attention were Loyalists, Mormon pioneers and polygamists, Indian captives, and Revolutionary War veterans. Each captured my attention because he lived in a period of time that was unfamiliar to me, and I wanted to know more. In my brief research into Loyalist history, I learned that Loyalists were beaten, tarred and feathered and forced out of their home by Patriots in Massachusetts. I had no idea. Although I am just starting the research, it seems that my ancestor Thomas Sumner was a prosperous and respected citizen of his town who was forced out and fled to Canada with  nothing. At least one of his sons returned to the United States and I wondered why.

I am also very interested in my female ancestors, particularly those that lived in Colonial New England. They are harder to research since fewer records exist, but this is where researching the historical and social context can help me better understand their lives. Also, each of the men listed above had a wife and daughters, and as I research the men, I can’t help but learn more about the women.

Whatever it is that draws you to a particular ancestor, learn more about that aspect of his or her life. Start with a general history of the historical period or place, or the occupation. Look in the bibliography of the histories you are reading to find additional sources, especially primary sources such as diaries and correspondence. Even if your ancestor didn’t leave a diary or correspondence, you can still learn much from what others in similar circumstances wrote.

Take some time this week to select one ancestor whom you would like to get to know better. I’d love to hear your comments about which ancestor you chose and why.