Chronologizing As a Research Tool

When I started in genealogy, I thought I was being organized and mindful if I saved a record I discovered to the appropriate folder with an appropriately descriptive file name. But I didn’t abstract those records as I went along. Big mistake. In certain instances, I’m still trying to dig myself out from under a landslide of such unabstracted records just sitting there unrecorded and unanalyzed.

When I begin a particular project now, I automatically start by abstracting (and citing) pertinent records as I find them and chronologizing those abstracts in my master file. I use the slightly awkward word “chronologizing” because I want to highlight the fact that it should be a conscious, active effort; not an accidental by-product.

Chronologizing has at least three significant benefits.

First and perhaps most importantly, chronologizing record abstracts helps differentiate people of the same name. You can’t ignore the conflict when chronologizing abstracts shows the same name to be producing records at the same time in two different places. Alternatively, chronologizing helps show that a particular series of records does, in fact, refer to the same person. Identities and relationships are clarified and errors of assumption are highlighted. For particularly knotty same-name problems you might chronologize in a spreadsheet for optimal comparability.[1]

Marya C. Myers recognized the value of chronologizing when writing her 2005 NGSQ article, “One Benjamin Tuell or Two in Late Eighteenth-Century Rhode Island? Manuscripts and a Timeline Provide the Answer.”[2] So did Patricia Law Hatcher when she chronologized to track and differentiate men of the same name in “Untangling the 15 Henry Hoffs of York County.”[3] The title says it all, yes?

Second, chronologizing highlights the gaps in records that begin to appear, encouraging us to fill in those gaps. If a gap in the chronology seems unfillable with records from a particular place, it’s time to start considering where else your subject may have gone. If there’s a significant gap that you can’t fill, it generally means something has been left undone. Push through until you can fill that gap. One friend of mine maintains a goal of finding, on average, at least one record for every year of her subject’s life. Some years will produce no surviving records, while other years will produce multiple records. It balances out.

For developing a year-by-year chronology, city directories and taxes can be especially helpful. Terry Koch-Bostic touches on the topic in her article on city directories in the current issue of NGS Magazine.[4] Koch-Bostic presents two tables that give a chronology for Jacob Iseli, 1860–1882. When considering state and federal censuses alone, only four items appear for that time span. When considering city directories alone, twenty-three items appear for the same time span. Combine them together for twenty-seven items over a twenty-two-year period.

Third, chronologizing sets you up perfectly for writing and presenting your findings. If you’ve gathered anything close to the one-a-year average that my friend shoots for, you will have created a firm foundation for a detailed biography. Depending on how you write your narrative, half or more of what you need to write may already be written in your chronology.

As editor of the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, 1965–1972, NGS Hall of Famer Hannah Benner Roach (elected 2002), was among the early proponents of chronologizing, eschewing the previous standard of presenting biographical material by topic.

[T]he accepted pattern of extended biographical studies, where a man’s personal life, his public or military activities, his economic interests, are usually treated separately, is not the clearest way to present in a genealogical study of the condensed account of his entire life. The genealogical identification of an individual is based on the chronological sequence of events: occurring over a span of years these events serve to isolate him from all others.[5]

During Roach’s tenure as editor she standardized both the documentation and the presentation of compiled genealogies. The chronological order she established became the new standard for PGM, just as it has for the nation’s other top journals.

Are you overlooking one of the simplest, most powerful tools at your genealogical disposal? If you are, stop and consider how it may help you in solving whatever problem you’re working on now. And if chronologizing has solved other kinds of genealogical problems for you, comment below and let us know about those so others can learn from your example.

Now go forth, and chronologize.


[1] See Aaron Goodwin, “Using Spreadsheets as Research Tools,” NGS Monthly, April 2018 ( 21 August 2019).

[2] Mary C. Myers, “One Benjamin Tuell of Two in Late Eighteenth-Century Rhode Island? Manuscripts and a Timeline Provide the Answer,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 93 (March 2005): 25–37.

[3] Patricia Law Hatcher, “Untangling the 15 Henry Hoffs of York County,” Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine 42 (Fall/Winter 2001): 115–132.

[4] Terry-Koch Bostic, “City Directories: Antiquarian People Finders,” NGS Magazine 45 (April–June 2019), 43–53, at 50–51.

[5] Hannah Benner Roach, “Retrospect and Prospect: An Editorial,” Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine 25 (1967): 48.

  1. August 22, 2019 6:49 pm
    • August 22, 2019 7:39 pm
  2. September 11, 2019 3:13 pm
    • September 11, 2019 4:25 pm

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