This is a fun one. You’ve already picked a family line or ancestor for your research focus. You’ve caught up your previous research files and photos. I know you’re ready to dive in and analyze what you have thus far, but I have one more step for you first:
Find out what you can about the time and places your ancestor lived. This includes the history of the area, the changes in political jurisdictions, uniqueness of the area, etc. For instance, if in your study you determine your ancestor lived in Oklahoma right after the 1889 land rush, you’d want to note that so you’ll remember to look in those land records.
How do you find a history of the area? I have two ways that I use most often:
“Google” the place and time. I put in different search criteria and conduct several searches to make sure I find the most useful information about a place in time.
FamilySearch Wiki. This is a great tool no matter where in the world you are researching. Just put the name of the place in the search box and let the search engine lead you to the information you need. You should search this wiki for ALL jurisdictions, meaning the town, county, state, and country. Look at the “history” portions and any other information that may be useful to studying the time and place.
Now, for a word of warning: You may find a lot of links to websites, sending you every which way. Just stay focused and try not to fall too deep into the rabbit hole.
For the political jurisdictions, I like to use Randy Major’s Map Tool. It is valuable to me because I can search at the town level and see how the county boundaries changed over time in relation to that town.
Once you have a good picture of the place and time, make a timeline for your ancestor, listing the locations he lived and major events for him and that area, and list his friends, associates and neighbors. Use a spreadsheet or Word document so you may add to it from time to time. I like to have six columns:
- Date: I think chronologically, so I like to start with the oldest date first, thus I would put the ancestor’s date of birth first, his death and probate last. If you already have sources for some of these events, go ahead and footnote them on your timeline.
- Event: Record major events in your ancestor’s life, such as birth, marriage, death, censuses, immigration, wars and military service, change of residence, etc.
- Town: Record the date the name of the town changes
- County: Record the date the county boundary changes
With your timeline organized this way, it will be a reminder to check all jurisdictions, that even though you have a federal military record, there might also be one at the state level.
Don’t worry if you can’t fill in all the details. It’s the holes that will generate research questions for you!
Here’s a sample:
Fill in the major events you have discovered for your ancestor’s time and place. You may want to use Wikipedia’s “Timeline of United States History,” for U.S. history events.
This is a great way to give you a visual perspective of your ancestor.
Do you use timelines? How are yours structured?