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  • Writer's pictureTheFormidableGenealogist

Timeline Tips: Loose Ends

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

One of the tips Jen shared in a recent video about breaking through brick walls is to create a timeline. Plot out the facts you know in order to identify where the gaps are. Doing that, and thinking more critically about it, can help you identify where to look next to find more information.

Essential components of any timeline are the beginning and the end. It's common in genealogy to have "loose beginnings"--that is, not being able to find information about your ancestor's birthplace or early life. That can keep you from making progress toward earlier generations, which is certainly frustrating. But leaving "loose ends" at the end of an ancestor's timeline can sometimes leave out a huge part of the story.

One type of loose end is the mystery of what happened to an individual after the last-known point on the timeline. An easy point at which to give up looking for someone is when they don't appear on the next scheduled census. For example, we may have tracked an ancestor to 1850, but we can't find them on the 1855 state or 1860 federal censuses. That's a spot at which one might think, "Well, they must have died before 1855." Although that is commonly what happened, it's not the only possibility. Perhaps the person moved to a new location, was living with extended family, had their name horribly misspelled or recorded altogether incorrectly, or got skipped by the census taker that year (...though that did happen, it's not as frequent as one may think when they can't find the person they're looking for). We encourage you to not put that "Before 1855" death date on the timeline just yet. Keep digging to see if you can find anything else.

One example is Hugh. At the 1860 census, he was age 60 and living with his wife Jane and three of their children in Lee County, Iowa. Jane died in Iowa in 1866, and it would be easy to assume that Hugh would have died around that same time in the same location. He would have been close to 70 years old, and there were no more records of him in Iowa to be found. Certainly no 1870 federal census from Iowa with his name in it. After more searching, I discovered that's because he moved with a few of his children to Sonoma County in northern California. They had been a family of farmers, and his sons went west to farm (and eventually got involved in the grange movement, which is very interesting if you're not familiar with it). Hugh died in California in 1881. He had about a dozen more years of life than if he had died before the 1870 census. It's nice to think that this ancestor, born in Ireland at the beginning of the 19th century, spent those "bonus" years at the end of his life with the Pacific coast sun on his face. I still have a brick wall with Hugh, as I don't know where in Ireland he was born. But I have a much more knowledge of his life than I would have if I had quit searching for him in Iowa. In this case, California voter registrations were the key to connecting California Hugh and Iowa Hugh.

Another example is a woman who last appeared on the 1870 federal census in rural Illinois with her husband and houseful of children. Her husband would identify himself as a widower on the remaining records of his lifetime. It would therefore be easy to assume his wife had died sometime between 1870 and 1880 and that, like many women of that time and place, her death and burial location were never recorded. However, that woman lived many more years after leaving her family. She married a series of men, using slowly evolving variations of her own name, and didn't legally divorce any of them before marrying the next. She lived the last years of her life in high society, pretending to be an heirless from a famous and wealthy family.

That is an extreme and unique example, but finding that missing information added an entirely new dimension to this person and the family's history.

Tying up any loose ends, however simple or complicated they might ultimately be, could have the same effect for your understanding of your ancestor.


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