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A Line to Draw the Time

By Daniel Hubbard | November 7, 2010

Timelines can be a great tool for genealogy. Timelines of general history give a quick overview and put events into their proper sequence. They can point out things in the sweep of history that may have influenced an ancestor. They can provide a quick-to-grasp framework for further understanding.

Making your own timelines can crystallize thoughts and make apparent possible connections between events that had only been pondered in isolation. Making a timeline can also point out flaws in our thinking. Impossibilities, both subtle and blatant, can be caught.

Timelines can also be dangerous. A historical timeline is rarely precise enough to be used without a good deal of further research. Granted, a timeline might tell you that the old family story about the ancestor who immigrated in 1785 and came by steamship is wrong either in time or in method of travel but for anything much deeper, some real reading is what is needed. You can’t conclude that an ancestor in the Maine or Georgia militias in 1781 was at the battle of Yorktown simply because that is what was the big news militarily in America in 1781. Just because the steam train was invented year earlier doesn’t mean that my ancestor who died in 1830 rode on one or even saw one. History is more complex than even the most skillfully prepared timeline can express by itself. Events that are major in one area might have gone unnoticed elsewhere—especially when travel was the only way for news to spread and travel was limited to a few miles per hour. A timeline that covers a broad area can be useful for getting the big picture but it can be misleading when you start working with a specific town or county. The scale of the timeline needs to match the scale at which you are researching.

Just as maps show us where towns, mountains, streets and rivers are in space and how they relate to each other in space; timelines can show us where expeditions, migrations, disasters and births are in time and how they relate to each other in time. The comparison is apt, I think. A standard map can show you that one village is west of another but it doesn’t tell you if people from one village founded the other, if one village is older than the other, if the people of the villages get along, if they are closely related or are populated almost exclusively by people from different ethnic groups. The map just tells us where those villages are and what mountains might separate them or what river might connect them. Usually, we easily grasp what a map can tell us and what it can’t. A timeline can tell you that one event happened long before or almost immediately after another but it almost never tells you if one event caused another, contributed to another, nearly prevented another or bears no known relation to another. The timeline just tells use the order of the events. For some reason we sometimes have a little more trouble avoiding assumptions when looking at a timeline than we have with a map.

Looking at a map can help you aim your car in the right direction but it isn’t the same thing as actually driving there nor is reading a timeline the same thing as researching the history. Like any powerful tool, timelines can be abused. Just like you wouldn’t use even an excellent map of California for navigating San Fransisco streets, you shouldn’t use a timeline for California to try to understand the specifics of your ancestors lives in San Fransisco.

History for Genealogists

What got me thinking about timelines was picking up the book History for Genealogists : using chronological time lines to find and understand your ancestors. I’d like to start off by saying that this is a useful book. It contains a vast amount of information in the form of many, many timelines. It also has a good deal of text to explain some events in a bit more detail, bridge from one timeline to the next and explain the dos and don’ts of using timelines. I can’t imagine that it is easy to make a book of timelines readable but this is a readable book. I was all set to love this book. I really wanted to love it. I could love a later, corrected, better edited edition. I’d like to think that the editing that I’ve done has made me too picky but it’s more than that.

First, the things that might seem picky. Parenthesis and quotations that open should be closed. It isn’t just a matter of convention. One really needs to know when things end to give them the right interpretation. Spaces shouldn’t be found inside contractions, it puts word breaks in strange places. Things like that cause mental double-takes and make the reader unsure and slow.  At least once the end of a timeline entry was simply missing. I reread thinking I had missed something but I hadn’t.

More seriously, there are some historically significant editing errors to be found without doing any research. The English king who broke with Rome was Henry VIII not his father Henry VII. Likewise, the French ruler who lost Alsace in 1871 was Napoleon III not Napoleon II who reigned over France, only in theory, for a few days in 1815 when he was 4 years old and living in Austria.

Sometimes important parts of a fact are missing. The people expelled from Spain in 1492 weren’t specified in one timeline entry but they were the Spanish Jews. As distasteful as that may be, missing mentioning why Spaniards were being expelled from Spain makes the reader stop to wonder what the entry means. The first entry for water travel to America is the sailing of the Mayflower long after the founding of Jamestown and much longer after the founding of St. Augustine. Those places are mentioned elsewhere at the appropriate times. Usually including or skipping an event is a judgment call but given how many people think that Plymouth was the first settlement in what is now the United States, the others probably should have been included here as well.

Occasionally the reader is left wondering what important word is missing from a sentence. Such as what it was that the California Supreme Court ruled about “testimony Chinese concerning whites was invalid.” The word “gave” must be missing. Sometimes it seems that a spell checker did it’s evil work,  like changing “being” to “begin.”

A problem with what is meant by the U.S. is common in works that cover the period before the American Revolution. Technically, there was no United States before 1776, though it is sometimes convenient to write as if there was. It can avoid some complications while still getting the idea across. Nevertheless, when writing using “U.S.” before 1776, it needs to be clear what is meant. Possibilities include the territory that is now American, only the territory that would become American in 1776 or the territory that was English at the time in question and would eventually become part of the United States. Still, no matter what definition is used, I don’t feel right about a timeline event involving a U.S. court case in 1677.

Sometimes things seem inconsistent. They might not be inconsistent, but as a reader, I’m left wondering if the first steamship crossed the Atlantic in 1819 or 1838. Both years are given in the same timeline. Neither is really wrong but without further knowledge the combination looks odd. The SS Savannah crossed the Atlantic partially under steam power in 1819. The Great Western was the first steamship built for regular crossings and it went into service in 1838. Both are interesting milestones on the way to the steam-powered, mass immigration of later years.

I’m also left to wonder about a statement that the French and Spanish continued to transport slaves into the U.S. via their port at New Orleans even after the Americans and British banned the international slave trade. I’m puzzled because the U.S. banned the trade in 1808, several years after the U.S. bought New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana Territory from France. Maybe it is just a problem with wording or it could be an error that slipped through, it might even be a subtlety worth explaining but again, the reader is left to wonder.

A tremendous amount of research went into History for Genealogist that can quickly lead the researcher in new directions. Important points are made about the limits of timelines and the benefits they can bring if used properly—a vital discussion to have when writing about a tool or technique. I picked up quite a bit reading it but I’d like to feel more sure of what I read. Especially given the vast effort to decide what timelines to present, collect innumerable dates and events, assemble them coherently and present them in a readable way, it is a real shame that more effort wasn’t placed on editing and fact checking. I sincerely hope that a revised edition is produced.

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