Creating a Genealogy Timeline to Organize Your Ancestor’s Life

By Diane Haddad

My grandfather Joe moved around a lot during his lifetime: Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, back to Texas, elsewhere in Texas, Ohio, more places in Texas, various Ohio cities, South Dakota, Ohio again.

Timelines organize an ancestor’s or a family’s family tree data—dates, places of residence, jobs, historical events, children’s births—in an orderly fashion. I love them.

So when I was making a photo book about my grandfather as a Christmas present for my dad, I thought a timeline was just the thing to help summarize all those migrations. Matching up the timeline with a map of all the places would be even better.

An Example Migration Timeline

Here’s the timeline and map I came up with:

genealogy map timelines

The right-hand page lists each place Joe lived, with dates and details about what he did in that place. The information comes from my research in censuses, city directories, newspapers and other genealogy records. I’m lucky to have copies of a job application my grandpa filled out with his work history.

Looking at it now, I can see some things I’d change. But overall, I’m pleased with it.

How to Create a Genealogy Timeline

For the map, I first tried customizing a Google map using free numbered place markers downloaded from here (Google’s marker options don’t include numbers).

To create your own Google maps timeline, add a generic place marker to the map and click the paint can to edit the marker style. Choose More Icons, then Custom Icon, and select the marker image file from your computer. You’ll need a Google account to save the map.

I didn’t love the result for my photo book, though. So I imported a map image into desktop publishing software I have access to through work, and added numbered place markers I created myself. Then I exported the file as a JPG to use in the photo book.

I know a few tricks, but I’m not a graphic designer, so there’s probably an easier and more artful way to go about making the map.

genealogy map timelines

Using Timelines in Your Genealogy Research

Timelines are among your best genealogy tools. In addition to helping you easily share genealogical information, they let you:

  • get an overview of a person or family in historical context
  • sort out a confusing jumble of information you’ve found in records
  • spot problems (why was Great-grandpa here and Great-grandma over there?)
  • note periods of missing information
  • brainstorm answers to research questions, such as why a relative immigrated or where your great-grandparents met

New course: Make a Family History Book in Three Days

You can make a family history book in 3 days! In this workshop starting Apr. 19, you will learn how to make a 20-page photo book using a combination of photographs, documents, and text to tell their ancestors’ stories.