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How to Make a Genealogy Timeline

Judi is an online writer from the UK who enjoys researching British history, culture, and travel.

Use a timeline to make sense of your family's memories

Use a timeline to make sense of your family's memories

What Is a Genealogy Timeline?

Genealogists and family historians love charts and forms! There are pedigree charts, family group charts, research record logs and cousin charts, to name a few. One type of chart that is often overlooked is the genealogy timeline.

A genealogy timeline is a visual aid that shows an ancestor's birth and death, as well as any other major events such as marriage, the birth of children and emigration. Local and world events can also feature on the timeline. A timeline can take any form, from a simple chronological list to be used as a working document, to a beautifully illustrated work of art to take its own place in a family history book. It's simple to make your own, but you can also find templates and software to make the job easier.

The Benefits of a Genealogy Timeline

If you already have a well-researched pedigree chart and your family tree is groaning under the weight of names you've added, you may question the use of a further chart. However, if you are a family historian who is aiming to truly uncover your family's history, rather than just someone who collects names and dates, a timeline is a valuable tool. It may be that a timeline for each of your ancestors is excessive, but constructing a timeline for a select few may yield dividends.

The major benefit of the timeline is that in creating it, you may well spot opportunities for further research. The timeline adds another dimension to your family's story; family tree charts tend to be a vertical line whilst the timeline broadens out the tree horizontally. Your tree will give the basics of each ancestor's life, his or her timeline will add the detail.

Genealogy Charts and Forms

  • Pedigree Chart–Tends to start with an individual and shows his ancestors going back several generations.
  • Family Tree–Usually the oldest generation is at the top, their descendants are shown below
  • Family Group Sheet–Data about each ancestor and his family is collated on one record.

What to Include in a Genealogy Timeline

The obvious place to begin your timeline is your ancestor's birth date. I would suggest that you extend it back a few years so that you include his parents' marriage date, if applicable. The end of the timeline will be dictated by his death. In between, you can add anything you know about his personal life, including:

  • date and place of baptism
  • date and place of starting school
  • employment details
  • military service
  • marriage
  • movement between towns or emigration
  • birth of children
  • death of parents

Once you have included these details you can add local and world events. You may be able to find links between personal and world events. For instance, you may notice that your ancestor left Ireland in the 1840s. Finding out that the Great Famine occurred in Ireland at that time is probably the reason for the move.

If you are not sure of where to start on adding world events to your timeline, visit a website. For example, World History includes timelines covering different countries, eras and themes that could help you fill in your own timeline.

A very simple working research timeline created using Word.

A very simple working research timeline created using Word.

How to Create a Timeline

There is no set format for a timeline, so you can be as minimalist or as creative as you like. The only set rule is that your timeline should be in chronological order. As you are likely to revise and add to your timeline it is advisable to work either in a computer program that is easily changed or work with pencil and paper.

Personally, I think that if your timeline is to be a working document it is best to use Word. Simply open a table and add rows to the table as you discover more information. If you reach a point where you feel that you have discovered all that there is about an ancestor you can get creative and work on a more lasting document. You may wish to draw it out and add photographs for instance.

Free Genealogy Timeline Template

If you aren't confident in using Word (or alternatively Excel) then you might consider downloading a template or installing software to make your timeline. You can download a free timeline template at

Smartdraw offers downloadable software to create timelines. Family history packages that list a timeline feature are shown in the box to the right.

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Judi Brown (author) from UK on February 27, 2015:

Hi Kristen - thanks for the comment and the vote - glad you found the hub interesting!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on February 27, 2015:

Great hub, Judi, on how to do a genealogical time line for your family tree. Real informative and interesting. Voted up!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on January 25, 2015:

Hi Joe - glad you found this useful and found a new website to use. Thanks for commenting!

Joe Fiduccia from Monroe County, PA on January 20, 2015:

I wasn't aware of the Obituaries Help website. I've seen a lot of similar sites, and quite honestly can do a template on my own. But the options I see in their site are great. I'll definitely be tweeting this for anyone who wants to create a timeline and save some time doing it. Thanks for sharing!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on September 12, 2014:

Hi Virginia - that sounds like a very worthwhile project, glad this hub helped :-)

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on September 10, 2014:

I've been working on my Civil War ancestor's timeline for several years. Thanks for giving me more ideas for structuring it.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on August 27, 2012:

Hi heartexpressions - glad this has given you a new idea! Many thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it!

heartexpressions on August 27, 2012:

This is great. I've been doing genealogy for quite a while, but never thought of doing a timeline. Thanks!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 13, 2012:

Hi Millionaire Tips - yes, timelines are definitely a useful tool for the family historian. The family history packages are the two in the Amazon capsule (I hope, just realised that the contents of Amazon capsules change sometimes). When I added the capsule I checked that the two packages listed had timelines included - click on the link to double check, it was listed on the contents.

Thanks for your comments, always appreciated :-)

Shasta Matova from USA on May 13, 2012:

Timelines are really useful to really get a clearer picture of the individual's life, and I wholeheartedly agree that we should take the time to create them. Adding other historical facts help us place the individual in history. Voted up. I didn't know about free software that helps us do this - I have downloaded it will definitely try it. You mentioned that there are family history packages that also include a timeline function - can you tell us what they are?

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 09, 2012:

Hi ancestralstory - I agree that a time line could make an excellent wall chart, as well as an organisational tool. I've seen some very decorative ones - don't know if my artistic skills are up to it though!

Thanks for your comments, I appreciate them :-)

ancestralstory from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia on May 08, 2012:

Thanks for a great hub - I will definitely have to devote some time to making timelines of both individuals, families and whole generations (it would be cool to have that as a wall chart!). It is really interesting to compare what different family lines were doing at the same time - how their lives differed and how world events may have impacted them.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 06, 2012:

Hi Thelma - that's great to hear! Timelines and family group sheets really come into their own when you write a narrative family history. I have done a few for friends and one for my mother-in-law (I made a book for her) and using those records helps you to stay on track.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, much appreciated :-)

Thelma Raker Coffone from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on May 06, 2012:

Judi I have been working on my family tree off and on since 1977. After all of these years, I really need to get my info organized so I can pass it on to the next generation. Your hub is an inspiration for me to get it done and your info will be very helpful to me.


Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 06, 2012:

Hi Jools - I have to say that I tried an early version of FamilyTreeMaker, but since Ancestry came online I keep my trees on there (I've split them up as they get too unwieldy otherwise). I also have a paper file and files that I have made on the computer. A lot of it lives in my head though.

Thanks, as always, for your comments, always appreciated :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 06, 2012:

Hi old albion - glad that this hub may be of use to you, it always great to hear that something you write is useful.

Thanks taking the time to comment, I appreciate it :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 06, 2012:

Hi GoodLady - it often occurs to me that my ancestors would be amazed at how much I had managed to find out about them and I wonder what they would think about my odd little obsession with their lives.

Delighted to hear that you find this hub useful - thanks as always for your comments and feedback, truly appreciated :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 06, 2012:

Hi Hubert - we share the same opinion of genealogy - exciting and challenging. Sums it up well - very exciting when it's going well, very challenging when you run into a brick wall.

Thanks for your comments, much appreciated :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 06, 2012:

Hi Bill - I know how it feels, that's how mine started - a photo and a couple of certificates. My father's whole family had drifted apart, for reasons unknown. However, more than twenty years after I started I've got a good way back and found more than a few second cousins. Hope you can find a way to sort yours out, but it does take time...

Always great to hear from you, and thank you!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 06, 2012:

Hi Healthy Pursuits - the branches of family trees do get tangled, don't they! Really difficult when certain names were in vogue and everyone second person is called "Henry" or "Ellen". Timelines certainly can help to organise your thoughts.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 06, 2012:

Hi Uninvited Writer - thank you very much! My family history research takes up a lot of my time, it's a bit of an obsession.

I appreciate your comments, thanks :-)

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on May 06, 2012:

Judi, this is a useful hub. I have an ancient copy of FamilyTreeMaker but I found its forms a bit clunky to be honest and ended up making my own in Excel or Word. You could end up disappearing under all of the bits and bobs you collect over the years and this is a good way of creating a system for information, much lighter.

Voted up, etc, etc.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on May 06, 2012:

A really informative hub. Clear and to the point I shall use it in the future for reference. Thanks Judy. Voted up and useful.


Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on May 06, 2012:

I really want to start a family tree now. Family history, is truly fascinating. We all go through life so quickly, but we leave a whole life-mark that is fascinating in the big scheme and to us - at the moment. The templates to download sound just the job. Thanks for all the information and the how to.

Hubert Williams on May 05, 2012:

This a very informative hub on one of my favorite pasttimes. Genealogy can be very exciting and challengeing. Thank fors sharing

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 05, 2012:

A wonderful hub with great suggestions. Unfortunately there are so many gaps in our family history and I'm not sure how to fill in those gaps. So many things were never told to me, so many secrets kept, that it seems impossible.

Anyway, you did good here my friend. Thank you!

Karla Iverson from Oregon on May 05, 2012:

Thanks for the useful hub, Judi Bee. My sister and I were forced to start using a timeline when we ran into several generations of family that had almost the same names, and were living in adjoining counties. It became very confusing, as they kept moving close to each other as they moved down the Ohio Valley with other settlers in the 1800's. The timeline kept us from going cross-eyed.

Susan Keeping from Kitchener, Ontario on May 05, 2012:

Excellent hub. I keep working on my family tree from time to time.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 05, 2012:

Hi Janis - family history time lines can certainly help you to place your ancestors in their historical context. Hope you can make use of them for your research.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, great to hear from you again :-)

Janis Goad on May 05, 2012:

I like this hub, Judi Bee. It's a simple and practical way to organize the family lore of various ancestors--doing a timeline for some of the ones I know most about can be a way to cluster information about family history and world events to see how they intersect.

This gives me some ideas of what to do with my family stories.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 05, 2012:

Hi Susan - I love my family history research, for me it's way more than just a lit of names. I really like uncovering the details of my ancestors' lives, it's a very rewarding hobby.

Thanks for your comments, very much appreciated :-)

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on May 05, 2012:

I've often thought about doing something like this as I think it would be a very interesting project to take on.

Interesting and useful hub!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 05, 2012:

Hi Jimmy - great to hear that this hub will be useful! I always hope that things will benefit people, but it's nice to hear that they actually do.

Thanks for the comments, much appreciated :-)

Jimmy the jock from Scotland on May 05, 2012:

Thanks for this Hub Judy, my cousin is in the process of tracing our family tree and I will be sure to pass this on to her great information and easy to follow instructions.....jimmy

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