Time Moves in One Direction, Memory in Another – Timelines Join the Two

RecordClick Genealogist Timeline

“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” (from Timeline, by Michael Crichton)

Board credentialed and professional genealogist Joan Shurtliff delivers another compelling article – this time about the importance of timelines in getting a handle on the chronology of your family history. Complete with research citations, Joan’s article on timelines finds the answers to a number of questions we all want to know about our own families.

Author William Gibson once said, “Time moves in one direction, memory in another.” While the discussion of “time” lends itself to a myriad of deep-meaning quotes, I can’t help but think Gibson had an insight into genealogy and the importance of timelines to genealogical researchers.

When I first started exploring the internet – low those many years ago now – I had a “getting-lost” problem. I’d start with one goal in mind, see something else I was interested in and go after that, and then wind up lost in the World Wide Web. I definitely needed something to keep me on track. I’ve found timelines can do that and so much more.

Three things a timeline can do for the family historian:

  1. Act as an outline
  2. Give perspective to a family’s activities
  3. Allow a genealogist to put a family’s activities in historical context

First, we’ll look at a timeline as an outline. Typically, when the genealogist wants to write an article or trace family history, the best place to start is with a list of names and dates in chronological order. I’ll use my grandparents, Ray and Nellie, as an example:

  • 18 Aug. 1893: Ray born in Des Moines Co., IA. (IA birth certificate)
  • 13 Sep. 1895: Nellie born in Des Moines Co., IA. (NE death certificate)
  • 28 Nov. 1914: Ray and Nellie married in Des Moines Co., IA. (Des Moines Co., IA marriage license)
  • 29 Mar. 1917: Nellie and Ray have their first child, Carl, b. Grand Forks Co., ND. (Carl, NE death certificate)
  • 15 Aug. 1923: Nellie and Ray have their second son in Pawnee Co., NE: “A baby boy was born… and was laid away in the village cemetery the same day.” (Pawnee Republican, 20 Aug. 1923)
  • 12 June 1925: Nellie and Ray have their third son, Howard, b. Lancaster Co., NE. (Information from Howard’s wife and SSDI)

When I was growing up there was a family story about Nellie and Ray having a baby boy that died. I asked my dad, Carl, about it and he had no memories of another brother. Ray farmed, but didn’t own any property, and the family didn’t have a lot of money. Ray and Nellie moved around a fair amount before settling down in Lancaster Co., Nebraska.

Second, many genealogical researchers want to add dimension to their family’s history, but find it difficult. A more detailed timeline focusing on the various family members and their activities can do this. Ray and Nellie provide another example:

  • 1920 U.S. Census: Ray and Nellie are living in Pawnee Co., NE. Ray is farming.
  • 23 Sep. 1923: Ray’s mother, Lydia, dies in a hospital in Gage Co., NE. (Lydia’s death certificate)
  • 12 May 1924: Ray’s grandmother (and Lydia’s mother) Mary, dies in Des Moines Co., IA. (Newspaper clipping and FindAGrave)
  • July 1924: Ray & Nellie are living in Pawnee Co., NE. (Postcard postmark and address from Nellie’s postcard collection in possession of Joan Shurtliff.)
  • 12 June 1925: Ray and Nellie’s son Howard is born in Lancaster Co., NE. (Information from Howard’s wife.)
  • 23 June 1925: Ray is paid $611.22 from Mary’s estate. (Mary’s probate, Des Moines Co., IA)
  • 14 July 1925: Ray and Nellie receive the results of a title search for a house in Lancaster Co., NE. (Letter in possession of Joan Shurtliff)
  • 2 April 1926: Ray and Nellie take out a mortgage for $850 for a house in Lancaster Co., NE. (Document in possession of Joan Shurtliff)
  • 1930 U.S. Census: Ray and Nellie and family are living in Lancaster Co., NE in a house valued at $1500.
  • What exactly does this tell us? When Ray’s Grandmother Mary died, she had an estate to leave to her descendants. Since Ray’s mother, Lydia, predeceased (died before) her mother, Mary, Ray was entitled to a portion of Mary’s estate. In 1924/25, Ray and Nellie decided to move from rural Pawnee County to urban Lancaster County and used the inheritance to help purchase a house.

Third, a family historian might help to put a family’s activities into an historical context. Again, as genealogical researchers, we can look at Ray and Nellie. Why did they decide to move from the Pawnee County farm to the Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska area?

  • 1908-1927: The Model T was in production. (Wikipedia)
  • 1920: Pawnee County, NE population, 9578 (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • 1920: Lancaster County, NE population, 85,902 (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • 1920: The design for a new Nebraska state capitol building was chosen. (Virtual Nebraska, www.casde.unl.edu)
  • 1922-1932: The new Nebraska state capitol building was constructed. (Virtual Nebraska)
  • 1925: Ray, Nellie and their sons are living in Lancaster County. (Letter in possession of Joan Shurtliff)
  • 1930: Pawnee County, NE population, 9423. (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • 1930: Lancaster County, NE population, 100,324. (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • 1930 U.S. Census: Ray and Nellie were living in Lancaster Co., NE and Ray was working as a mechanic in a garage.

Historically, the 1920s saw a major population shift from the rural to the city. Roads and transportation were improving, and the agricultural industry was becoming more mechanized. The United States was becoming an industrialized nation. Ray and Nellie were by no means unique in their decision. Farming was becoming an expensive livelihood, with land and equipment to be purchased or rented and maintained, not to mention the long hours of work with no guarantee of a crop that could be sold. Lincoln, about 50 miles away in Lancaster County, was booming and there were job opportunities. Ray and Nellie decided that Lincoln was where their future lay, and Ray’s inheritance helped make the move possible.

The professional genealogists here at RecordClick can help you gather, organize, and make sense of your family history information. Whether it is a specific piece of family tree information, a timeline, or a complete family history, our goal is to assist you in your ancestor search endeavors.