About 2 years ago, I was thrilled, but overwhelmed with the information available in a book I had ordered online. It was published by the local historical society and it contained an abstract of all of the church records available at the church founded by my husband’s ancestors in Kankakee County, Illinois. Before purchasing the book, I had found a list online of all of the voting members of the church in 1878 and I knew that several of his ancestors were members. What I never imagined with the wealth of information available on those ancestors in the church records! (Confession: My shyness has kept me from every going to a church to ask what type of records they keep!)
As I flipped through the 500+ page book, I could see that if I didn’t come up with a system quickly, I’d be losing out on valuable information. In addition, the book stated that the records of the early church were all written in German, so even if I had been able to get my hands on the actual records, I would not have been able to understand most of it. The book was a translation of the records, so it was a double bonus!
I set up an Excel file to begin entering information. I created a column for Record type (birth, marriage, death, baptism, confirmation, etc.) Year, Name of record subject, Father, Mother, Spouse, Page #, Witnesses and Comments. I created identical pages for each surname I was researching so that I could quickly click between surnames as I went through the book.
To begin, I used the index and began going through the book entering the information as I went. No single record contained ALL of the information, but I knew I’d be able to sort columns to decide which records belong to the same person. Looking at the information from all of the records for a person gave me much more information that a single record could.
After entering all of the information, I sorted the Name column (being careful to choose the ‘expand the sort’ option so that all rows stayed together) so that each individual would either end up grouped together or close together. This also helped me to see if there was more than 1 person with the same name to be aware of in other research, such as census records. (My images do not include all columns to make them easier to read.)
I could further sort these specific names by date to see if that revealed information to help differentiate people with the same name. Finding the death of 1 individual with continuing records after that date helped to sort men with the same name. Often, this simple sort gave me a lot of information that I wasn’t expecting including middle names, various spellings and multiple spouses.
I could also perform a sort of the names in the Father column. Based on this, I am able to write a sort of family group sheet. Often, I would find a child that I didn’t know about and I discovered that often, if a child died, the next child was given that same name in honor of them. That solved some puzzles I’d listed in my notes.
2 wives named Katherine
I can also do a custom sort forcing the program to list names in alphabetical order and each identical name in chronological order. This could give me an approximate timeline for when a spouse died and when a second marriage occurred. Another thing that this sort gave me was maiden names for spouses and multiple spouses.
I did a similar sort for the Mother column. When I sorted by female names, I discovered German names for husbands that I never would have known about otherwise. Why research Ehranreich Betz when my ancestor’s name was Alexander Betz? I can also manually move rows that match the individual I’m focusing on so that all of the information is together.
Although this has nothing to do with Excel, I was also very pleased with some of the information I gleaned from the witness or comments section of the records. For example, I had a date of death and a tombstone for an ancestor only to discover through the comments section that this person had committed suicide and was not actually buried in the cemetery, but on a nearby farm. This explained why I had not been able to find a will and led me to search for the newspaper story about his death, which I never would have thought to look for if I had been content to know the date of death of “place of burial” only.
I also have the great joy of researching the surname “Smith” on my side as well as my husband’s side and I use these processes in Excel in the same way. The only difference is that I keep records from multiple books, microfilms and web sites citing the sources in a separate column. I love being able to manipulate the data like this and know that I won’t mess anything up – it all goes back to my original format as long as I don’t save the manipulated file when I’m finished!