Thursday, May 5, 2011

Good Genealogy = Attention To Detail, Analysis and …Timelines

Shortly, we’ll be heading off on a short out-of-state research/field trip, picking up where we left off a year or so ago on about a half-dozen particularly difficult family lines.  

The "Smith" Dilemma: Researching Those “Common” Names

What makes these lines especially difficult is that (a.) they’re all relatively common names, like Jackson, Ryan and Smith; (b.) they’re located in parts of states where there’s not much in the way of recorded vital records before the end of the 19th century (and the problems waiting to be solved are all in the mid-18th century) and (c.) there’s no evidence that any of these folks (all rural) ever set foot in a church, so there’s not much in the way of  church records either. 

Then, to make matters worse, there are several families living in the small geographic area all with the same surname, and all with a large number of children with the same very common first names.
Like John. And Mary. And William. And Sarah.

Oh, yeah. Most of these people lived on the fringes of the economy and signed things with an “X”.  No large estates.  Few land transactions.  Hardly any probate records.  They may all be related.  Or maybe not.  That’s the problem at hand. Sorting it all out is what we’re trying to do.

And in case you haven’t ever tried to do it, sorting out three or more landless, godless John Smiths all living in the same backwater area in 1780 ain’t easy, no matter how much experience you have.

So… What’s The Strategy???

So, aside from doing a review of all the known information that we’ve collected over the past dozen years or so, what else are we doing to get ready?  After all, we want to maximize our available research time.

One Word. . .  Timelines.

No, not the kind of timelines that show you what great historic events were happening when your Great Aunt Tillie got married, but the kind that sketch out exactly where your ancestor was during a particular point in time and in a particular place and what he or she was doing.

These are the kinds of timelines that you make yourself, from the body of small time-dated facts you've collected...even the ones that don't seem to be important at first.

If more genealogists spent more time constructing ancestral timelines for their “problem” ancestors, there would likely be considerably less garbage on those internet genealogy sites where anybody can upload a bejillion unsourced ancestors and then jigger the dates to fit the situation. 

Yeah, I know that some folks have no problem with their great-great grandmas being born in 1811 in New Hampshire and then having their first child in 1816 in Georgia and their last child in 1874 in Manitoba, but there’s something about that that doesn’t seem …quite right.

The Graphic Dimension of Timelines

So, why timelines? 

Simply because putting the facts of an ancestor’s life all down on paper (and preferably in some kind of spreadsheet, like Excel, for instance) in chronological order and also keyed to a specific geographic locality lets you see almost at a glance what’s logical/possible and what’s not.

Most important, it lets you see the massive time gaps – some of which are large enough that you could drive a whole fleet of covered wagons through them - that still need to be filled in with information.  The “missing” information could come from a variety of little-used sources, such as court records, jury lists, obscure tax lists, petitions for roads, ferries and taverns, newspaper accounts, you name it, all of which can be used to sort out folks with the same name.   

Tracking down your folks and noting where and when they serve as witnesses for other people on their property deeds and wills can provide substantive clues that can lead to discovering other relationships.  The minutiae of their daily life – when viewed critically in chronological order over a long period of time – can often reveal important patterns that less experienced researchers usually overlook entirely.

Just doing the task of filling in the timeline lets you better understand what you know and what you don’t know ... yet.  It’s all very Rumsfeldian:  there are known knowns, known unknowns and even unknown unknowns.  

Why You Should Try It

In a word, doing a timeline lets you see in a highly graphic way that there are lots of things that you don’t actually know about your ancestor’s life, things that may have gone unnoticed because you’ve been concentrating on the “born-married-died” facts to the exclusion of lots of the tiny details.

Genealogy is all about careful attention to detail and about the analysis of those seemingly unimportant bits of information that don’t appear – at first glance – to have much genealogical significance.

If you’ve never tried it, try constructing a timeline for your mother this week - just for practice; after all, Sunday is Mother’s Day, so nothing could be more appropriate.  I guarantee that you’ll find large and fascinating gaps that will be well worth exploring.

(Of course, your mom may not agree that you should be poking around in those gaps at all...)


  1. Excellent points. Timelines have helped me sort through knotty problems (three Edward Turners living in Fauquier County at the same time). But even timelines haven't helped solve my Smith and Jones questions.

  2. If your Smith guy ever wanders through Kanawha County, say, 1790-ish, let me know - we'll brainstorm together! (I keep hoping some of these families develop an affinity for weird first names, but so far it's not happening)

  3. I just adore timelines. They seem so simple but help so very much. "It’s all very Rumsfeldian," is now my favorite quote of the month.

  4. I'm now working on a timeline that may help me narrow down a date of death to a 3 to 4 day period in 1845. Couldn't do it otherwise. Glad you liked the "Rumsfeldian" bit!