Timelines: A Terrific Organizational Tool

There are many ways to organize notes in our genealogical research. Some methods are better suited to one purpose or another.

What method do you use to keep track of information if you have an ancestor and/or family who moved around a lot, causing many gaps throughout the years in which they lived?

My go-to method is a timeline. Timelines are a chronology of all the facts, and clues, found as genealogical research proceeds. I have used Excel to organize dates, places, people and events when the entries are short and compact. If the events need more detailed data added, I prefer Word. I know there are other resources out there, but my eyes just like the clean columns of information on a page without the lines found in a spreadsheet.

Here is a timeline put together over many years, covering the family of Isaac Sturgell, my husband’s 2X great grandfather. I’ve written about black sheep Isaac many times, but today my focus isn’t on Isaac’s life, it’s on how a timeline helped fill in the huge gaps I had in his life.

When Dave’s aunt and I began researching the Sturgell family, we knew that there were still relatives in Barry County, Missouri and we had the family back to Abijah Houston Sturgell, who was born and died in Barry County. In fact, we visited his gravesite.

We found Abijah in the 1900 census, already long married with a family. We also found him in 1880 and 1870. The 1870 census gave us his father’s name – Isaac. The family was in Barry County all that time.

However, Isaac Sturgell reported that he was born in Virginia. He wasn’t in the 1860 Missouri census, but he was enumerated as Isaac Sturgeon in the 1850 census. He lived in Barry County at the time with presumed wife Mary and a female infant, M.J. He and Mary reportedly were born in Virginia, but the baby was born in Ohio.

Where was Isaac in 1860? That would have been the first census in which Abijah appeared, as he was born in 1855. What was Mary’s maiden name? Had Isaac and Mary both died by 1880? Neither could be found in Missouri.

Abijah had two brothers in the 1870 household. A.J. , born about 1853 in Texas and George W., born in 1860 Arkansas.

Things were getting complicated since it looked like Isaac never let much grass grow under his feet. In the handful of records I’d found, he could be placed in Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Texas and Arkansas, all by the time he was in his 30s.

This was all before the computer age. If I was starting this hunt today, technology and genealogy databases would have enabled me to find Isaac in these places in less time, but setting up a timeline would still provide a much clearer picture of his life.


Isaac’s timeline still has a few gaps in it. I’ve never discovered his Texas destination and it’s possible that he visited for just a short time, leaving no written records. I also haven’t found in him the 1900 census, but I feel fairly certain that he was living at the county farm, which isn’t found in the Barry County enumeration.

43 facts have actually been uncovered, relating to Isaac’s life and that of his children. Digging deep into the Barry County courthouse and then fanning out to search all of the counties of northwest Arkansas painted quite a picture of Isaac’s life. Learning that his first wife, Mary, left him and took the girls with her to Illinois opened an entirely new avenue.

Why bother to hand create a timeline? Today’s genealogy software programs can produce timelines for people entered in the database, based on the facts entered for each person. However, what if I wasn’t sure if George and Jack Sturgell in Arkansas were Isaac’s sons? Or if I had come across other Sturgells – Sturgills – Sturgeons and didn’t know if or how they might be related to Isaac. They wouldn’t be entered in my software, yet I needed to track them.

Timelines created outside of software programs take care of that issue. It costs nothing to set up a spreadsheet or a Word document and each category of information can be sorted and analyzed.

There are also a number of free timeline makers online. I’ve used TimeToast, which I like. Several others which I haven’t used, but are free and and you might want to investigate include Office Timeline, Free-Timeline,  Timeline, TimeGlider, Timeline Makerand SmartDraw.

Timeline Maker has a trial version, but is by subscription. SmartDraw appears to have both a free download and a one time fee.

If you have a complex problem, consider setting up a timeline. The effort invested may bring a big payout in terms of results.


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