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Tracking Your Ancestors

A Family Chronology

William Lynch Couch Family ca. 1899
My Couch family line meets every couple of years so family researchers can share what we have learned. We know that most of us are cousins because some of the men have completed a DNA profile and they fall into the same Couch DNA group. The rest of us can track our ancestry through the records to the same ancestors as these men. Our challenge is to find records to prove who our immigrant ancestor was.

We have all collected a lot of data and need to see how it all fits together. So I decided to create a chronology or timeline of all the data that we have and see if any ideas or clues are generated from that data.

I want to do this because over the years I have found that a chronology provides me with a complete picture of everything I know about a particular ancestor and his family. I include in my chronology the source of each fact that I have.

A Chronology is a Tracking Tool

Now you might ask how this is considered "tracking." Generally tracking means that you can follow your ancestor's migrations from one location to another. With the chronology, I can track their movements as they move from one location to another and I can track their activities within each community they lived in. Therefore using a chronology helps me track several things about an ancestor and his family.

First, it helps me keep my facts straight--what happened, when it happened, who was a part of the event and where I got my information. I can also use a comments section for details and notes I want to make about the event or data.

Second, it provides me with a quick reference of all the information I have collected on a particular ancestor and his or her family.

Third, it tells me what data I have that is substantiated by records and what data is from a secondary source and will need verification. It also tells me what data I have that I may never be able to prove and what data may be totally bogus.

Fourth, it tells me what data I have that may conflict with other data that I have. Since I have attached an abbreviated version of my source, I can compare the quality of the sources and then may be able to decide which source is more likely to be correct.

Fifth, it tells me what data I have yet to collect. I leave rows blank for the basic information such as birth, marriage, census years and death. It is easy for me to see what I haven't filled in yet and what source information I need to collect.

A Chronology as an Analytical Tool

A chronology can also be used as an analytical tool. When you organize your data on a person you can see the conflicts in information that you may not have noticed before. It can help you pinpoint the discrepancies or missing information in your research.

You can collect a set of data about a particular issue that is unresolved and organize it chronologically. By doing this you can tell what information is in conflict, what information may not be valid and what additional information you may need to collect.

Using a chronology I have been able to demonstrate that one of my ancestors had to have had 3 wives rather than the 2 known wives. A 15 year gap in the birth of the children provided evidence that the first known wife was actually wife # 2. While it is possible that there was some very unusual circumstance that could account for a 15 year gap in the birth of children by the same mother, the more likely scenario is that there was a first wife who was the mother of the first set of children. When she died the husband remarried and had another set of children.

Using a chronology I was able to organize my facts to help settle a family dispute. Researchers were in disagreement over the first wife of a common ancestor. I made a quick chronology of his grandfather's and his parents' marriages--both substantiated and speculative to determine where to look for his marriage record. I included the data about his marriage to both women. I included my sources and evaluated the data. With this quick chart I was able to determine where the marriage most likely occurred. I found an index and ordered a copy of the marriage bond from the county. It told me that if anyone had ever looked for or found the marriage record they did not indicate so in their sourcing information. By the way, since I didn't want a certified copy, it only cost me $1.64 to get the copy of the marriage bond from the county, $1 for the copy, and two 32¢ stamps--one to send the request and one for the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope.)

I learned that a chronology helps me keep my data organized by providing a ready reference of everything I know about any particular ancestor.

I learned that I can add any information I have to the chronology. It doesn't matter if the source is questionable. I still have information available to me for evaluation and comparison to other information that I have found or will find without adding to my family tree.

I learned that using a chronology can help me analyze conflicting data.

I learned that a chronology can help me identify missing information about my ancestor and help me determine possible locations and types of records where that information might be found.

I learned that a chronology is an easy reference to show the migration of my ancestor from place to place.

I learned that a chronology provides me with a picture of what my ancestor's life was like by having all the events in their life arranged in the order in which they occurred. This gives me a feeling of knowing them.

Click here to learn more about developing and using a chronology.


Share your comments about this article or the ways in which you track your ancestors.


  1. I collected city directory listings for the surname I was researching, put them in order and resolved one of my issues. Cleveland renamed all their streets. One year of the city directory includes the old street name in parenthesis next to the 'new' street name in the listing. That also explained why google maps wasn't finding the streets in my search :-)
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  2. Great idea! I love it when I can find a city directory for the place and time I am researching. It is such an underutilized resource.

    Thanks for you addition!