When I first became obsessed with genealogy in 1996, I knew nothing about ‘how to’ do research or, even, what to do ‘with’ the documentation that I already had in my possession. My research partner, Jim Jackson, introduced me to the concept of constructing a Timeline in order to organize an ancestor’s life. I’m sure that this method was not Jim’s invention, but it is an excellent organizational tool for any level of genealogical research. We basically use any piece of discovered documentation as a “point in time” within a listing of events in a person’s life or Timeline.
It bears emphasizing that we always include the ‘source’ for the documentation. But if we fail sometimes to record the source when we discover it, we have to spend an enormous amount of time retracing our steps to re-discover that ‘source’.
Let me give an example of a Timeline, in this case creating a biography for a favorite ancestor using Timelines in the late 19th and 20th century.
One necessarily uses many sources. So let’s collect the following from certain places:
Item Collected from
- Deeds Court House
- Marriage Certificate Vital Records Department
- Residence(s) Multiple issues of City Directory
- Newspaper Articles Various articles, various newspapers
- Interviews with relatives Various interviews from various times & people
- Census Records Several, over decades
- Birth certificate The Person, State or county vital records
- Birth certificates The person’s children, State vital records
- Letters From various to various
- Obituary Newspaper
- Death certificates Vital records, for the person’s parents, children
These items would all come from diverse dates, even locations and cities and yet when placed together in a Timeline, could be used to write a biography. Historical components from the time might be added as appropriate.
While it may be self-evident that arranging documentation in chronological order makes good sense, this practice is even more useful if you are researching a large, extended family grouping. For example, on the Augusta County, Virginia Berry research project, there were several generations of men named John, James and William Berry, all living in Augusta County, Virginia in the mid-1700s. By gathering ALL references to ANY John Berry (or James or William), the process of sorting out events for each of their lives begins. I would not claim that this ‘sorting’ leads to immediate conclusions in terms of separating the various John Berry’s – it often takes many years to collect the material and weigh the evidence. As we ‘sort’ the documentation, we make ‘notes’ about why each piece of evidence belongs to which individual and we are always aware that we may have to revise our initial assignment when new evidence comes our way.
Nonetheless, by recording the fact, the source, the logic for its assignment to this particular John, we follow the age old rule of attempting to handle a piece of paper but once. Well, at least we get close to that rule.
By Carol Vass, Kent, Washington
Genealogy of the Berry and Associated Families
Part 1 The First Four Generations of the Scotch-Irish Berry Family
in Augusta, Rockbridge and Washington Counties, Virginia