Construct A Timeline

Written By: Pam Holland & Jayne McGarvey.

Covered In This Lesson:

  • Why Create A Timeline?
  • How To Create A Timeline.
  • Let’s Take An Example.
  • What To Do Next.


In the last lesson – “Gather Ancestor Identifiers” – you chose a single Irish ancestor (or couple) that you wished to research further and gathered existing information and facts you already have relating to this person/couple.

In this lesson – “Construct a Timeline” – you will organise the information you gathered into a “timeline” format and add to this timeline as you advance with your research on this ancestor/couple. 


Why Create a Timeline?

The timeline format is a way to organize the information you have discovered about an ancestor – but they are even more useful to highlight information that you may be missing. A simple Timeline can be created by jotting down ancestral information on a sheet of paper – or recording the information in a word processing program or spreadsheet. Let’s look at this in more detail.


How to Create A Timeline.

I like to start my Timeline by noting an ancestor’s birth, marriage and death – with lots of space in between. I then insert other events I know about in between these dates. These events could include:

  • Appearance on a census.
  • Buying land.
  • Being listed as a sponsor or witness in a church record.

Then I add other information that may be important such as estimates of immigration dates or dates for moving from one location to another location.

Pam Says: Lets’s Take An Example. 

Here is a recent example from one of our members. She provides what she currently knows about an ancestor (Ancestral Identifiers) – and I construct a timeline as part of my reply. The main purpose of constructing this timeline is to make it more obvious what we DO NOT know – and what we need to find out next.


What Debbie originally asked Pam:

Hi Pam, 
I have a huge Brick wall – maybe made of steel. I really appreciate any insight that you all can give me. My specific research question is in two parts: where is Michael Flynn (my gr-gr grandfather) from in Ireland and who are his parents? 

Here is what I know:

  • Michael Flynn born 1837 per census report and died 7-15-1883 per death record. **Death record attached. Cincinnati did not have death certificates until after 1883. 
  • He lived in Elizabeth, N.J. with both his first wife (Mary Quinland/ Quillan) and 2nd wife (Johanna Boland).** birth of son Matthew Flynn in New Jersey. My gr-grandfather John Flynn is the son of Mary.
  • 2nd marriage to Johanna (Annie) Boland (Bolen) 10 Sept. 1870. 
  • Moved to Cincinnati, Ohio before 1880. 
  • Possible birth record of Michael Flynn from Cork Co. 

If you have any suggestions on how I can trace Michael Flynn back to Ireland, I would be very grateful! I am planning a trip and would love to go to the city in Cork Co. where he is from.
Many thanks, Debbie Colson.


Pam’s Reply to Debbie:

Hi Debbie,
I had a look at your information and created a timeline below for your ancestor and his family. This will help pinpoint areas for further research. 

Looking at your information, the first thing I see is that the marriage in 1870 and Matthew’s birth in 1873 are both Index Records. This means the originals may contain more information and need to be found. The Film Number reference on the records refers to Family History Microfilm at the LDS Church. These are being digitized and I looked up the microfilm numbers at

I discovered the two microfilms from your timeline are already digitized but the images are restricted to users at a Family History Library or an affiliate Library. This restriction is due to the original agreement to microfilm the records and was specified by the New Jersey agency where the records were filmed. You can see the available records at

Do you have any other records for Michael Flynn and his family? It looks like you should be able to find the 1860 and 1870 censuses. Have you found any other records for the birth of any of his children or his first marriage?

Let’s Use this information to construct a timeline (with sources) for Michael Flynn:

Notes on this timeline:

  • Cal = Calculated from the given document
  • Est = Estimated – a range of years showing an estimated guess
  • Doc = Documented – known date from the given source
  • Location – Make as exact as possible (District, town, county, state, country OR Townland/village, parish, county if in Ireland).
  1837 (Cal) Birth Ireland Michael Flynn born  (1880 US Census)
  1840 (Cal) Birth   Johanna Boland born  (1880 US Census)
  1837 – 1855 (Est) Immigration Elizabeth, NJ Settled in Elizabeth, NJ   
  1855-1864 (Est) Marriage Elizabeth, NJ Marriage to Mary Quinland/Quillan  
  1864 (Cal)  Child Elizabeth, NJ Daughter Maggie Flynn born (1880 US Census)
  1865 (Cal)  Child Elizabeth, NJ Son John Flynn born (1880 US Census)
  1868 (Cal)  Child Elizabeth, NJ Son William Flynn born (1880 US Census)
  10 Sept, 1870. (Doc)  Marriage Elizabeth, NJ Marriage to Johanna Boland (NY marriage index, FHL microfilm #494149)
  1872 (Cal)   Child Elizabeth, NJ Son James Flynn born (1880 US Census)
  1873 (Cal)  Child   Elizabeth, NJ Son Matthew Flynn born (NY birth index, FHL #494149)
  1873 – 1880 (Est) Migration Cincinnati, OH Moved to Cincinnati, OH  
  June, 1880,  (Doc) Residence Cincinnati, OH Family in Cincinnati, OH (1880 US Census)
  15 July, 1883 (Doc)  Death Cincinnati, OH Michael Flynn dies  
  July, 1883 (Cal) Burial ? Michael Flynn is buried  
  1883 – 1903 (Est) Probate ? Extend beyond death if possible e.g. to probate as these documents can contain relevant information.  

Are you curious to see how this conversation between Pam and Debbie developed?  You can click here to follow it in the Green Room forum

Final points on creating a timeline:

  • Remember to make a note of where you found the information shown in your timeline. You may need to check this source later if you (and you probably will) find conflicting information. If the source you listed is just an index record or transcript, you will need to follow up and find the original that could contain more information.
  • Make sure to examine and update a timeline regularly. This will generate new ideas for future research. It can also highlight areas where you have contradictory data and need more research to resolve the contradiction. You will also be grateful for this updated timeline if you set your research aside and then pick it up in the future. By reviewing your timeline you can quickly pick up on where you were and what you need to do next.

In Conclusion: 

Timelines are a useful tool that are often overlooked due to their simplicity. They offer a visual aid to organise your ancestral information in a way to clearly show any gaps in your research – and therefore where you need to research next – as well as giving you a sense of the times your ancestor lived in. Be sure to create one for an ancestor (or couple) anytime you are wondering what to research next or if you hit a brickwall and need to stand back and look at the situation.


What To Do Next:

  • Construct a timeline for a chosen Irish ancestor or couple. Use our “Construct a Timeline” worksheet (located here) or simply use paper or a computer spreadsheet.
  • You can see an example of a completed timeline here.
  • Populate the timeline with the facts you know already (ancestral identifiers) about this person and any additional best guesses. Be sure to reference any sources for your facts/guesses in the timeline.
  • Decide on what you need to research next to expand this timeline or to find source citations.
  • Share your timeline in the Ask the Genealogist section in the forum if you are looking for feedback or guidance. See link below.

In the next lesson – “Build A Research Plan” – you will develop a research plan to guide your further research into your Irish ancestor or couple.


Click Here To Ask Our Genealogist a Question Related to This Module.



Related Resources.

Downloadable Worksheets: