click to view original photo

Conducting Research Through Societies and Fraternal Organizations

Whether you are strolling through a cemetery or reading an obituary, you are likely to find insignia or other indications that a relative was a member of a society or fraternal organization. These organizations can be used as genealogical research tools.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 1540 (approx.)
Short URL:

An Overview of Societies and Organizations

There is a plethora of organizations in just about every community of more than two people! Understanding the organization and what information each collection covers and where to locate it can aid genealogical researchers.

One thing all such groups have in common is a hierarchy. There are officers, meetings, elections, and activities. All of these create paper trails.

The meeting dates and times appear on the front page of most newspapers, up until about 1900. Then, they tended to be placed farther back in the paper. Once a location was determined, the publication page was consistent within that newspaper.

The meeting notice often included the names of at least some of the officers and where they met. This establishes that your relative expected to be present at that time and place. If you can find nothing else to document where they were at a given time in history, memberships can help.

Often such groups will have an annual event that was probably covered by the local newspaper. There may have been an annual yearbook published. And, certainly someone will have kept photos (depending on the time period) or other memorabilia.

Other events might have included participation in a holiday celebrations such as a Fourth of July parade. There is likely to be some kind of documentation of such celebrations, probably in a local newspaper. In the case of the I.O.O.F., the organization entered floats in the Rose Bowl Parade since 1908! Yes, that's the same as the Tournament of Roses Parade. The I.O.O.F. has entered its floats in the parade for over a century.

The Hierarchy

The "regular" members can easily fade into the background in a large metro area, but the officers are always named and initiated. The Subordinate Lodge of the I.O.O.F. consists of nineteen officers. In a smaller town, the I.O.O.F. needed just about every member to fill an office, in order to complete the roster. That increases the chances you might find who you are looking for.

At the very least, organizations typically have at least a president and vice president, a treasurer to handle membership fees and expenses, and a secretary to record minutes. Each officer serves a limited term during which you can verify that the person was present and accounted for based on their service.

The Opposite Gender

Many member-based organizations are gender-based, but include an auxiliary for the opposite sex. Most of the older organizations are patriarchal and the auxiliary was for the ladies. Because of the auxiliary, this may be the only place where you'll learn much about a woman's life aside from being listed as spouse on a census.

Her photograph may have appeared in either an organization yearbook or a newspaper story. If she played the accordion at an event, you now know she had some music training and was able to afford to buy an accordion. Did she have other musical interests? Did she teach music?


All of these organizations are value-based. They promote a cause. Members affirm that they endorse that cause. This gives you an insight into an ancestor that just doesn't come through on a census return.

The more you know about the purpose of an organization, the more you know about the ancestor. The Prohibition issue brought about the Templars and the Prohibitionists. Obviously, the latter wanted to ban alcohol altogether. The Templars were more likely to at least tolerate drinking in moderation, while other factions insisted on abstinence. Either way, anyone who joined these organizations felt strongly about the use of alcohol.

Prior to being granted membership, applicants are often invited. Whether they seek membership or it is extended to them, a history lesson is part of the induction process. During that initiation, members or potential members learn about insignia and mottos that are abbreviated techniques for expressing and remember the values of the membership.

Those values are assumed to reflect a member's outlook on life. A whisky brewer might be a member of the Templars, endorsing the cause of drinking in moderation. It would be highly unlikely for such a brewer to be a prohibitionist, unless they inherited the brewery or changed their views later in life. It would be unlikely that you would find a brewer's name among prohibitionist archives, unless they were on the receiving end of a protest!


Have you ever wondered why your ancestor was present in a given city during an event, when they didn't live there? Perhaps they were attending a national or regional event. Organizations have conventions today. But, over the years, they have had national and regional elections. Camps have always been popular for adults, as well as for children.

The History of the Organization

The more familiar you are with the history of an organization, the more focused your research can be. If a particular organization did not exist in the Washington Territories in 1865, you can save yourself some time by not searching for published meeting times in any newspaper.

Fortunately, organizations often preserve the genealogical information of their members. It isn't likely to be as detailed or reliable as primary documents like death certificates, but funerals are especially well-documented by some organizations. Some have a tradition of posting a special notice in the local newspaper honoring the recently deceased. Even if the obituary doesn't appear in the local newspaper, you may find a very touching honorary tribute by the deceased's fellow members.

The Secrets Of Membership

There are secret handshakes and so on among some organizations. But, there are other secrets that we, as genealogists, can pick up on that might not mean much to the lay person.

Members paid fees. Almost every organization has membership dues. They may not be much, but they are universally paid in cash. No matter how self-sufficient a farmer might be, he needed cash to pay those dues. This tells us he had a cash flow. It also tells us he had at least a tiny bit of discretionary cash, beyond paying his property taxes and caring for his family and homestead. In other words, members of these organizations were not dirt poor.

Sometimes there are initiation fees in addition to the regular membership dues. Plus, some organizations require a uniform, at least for officers and at the very least for special events. Unless a member knew someone he could borrow a uniform from, he needed funds to buy one. Depending on the organization, the uniform needed insignia, which he also had to buy. Once a member passed away, the family paid extra to have the organization's insignia engraved on a tombstone.

Then there were the perks. He might have bought insurance through an organization . In fact, you will often find references to an ancestor being a "member" of the Modern Woodmen of America. Being a member of this organization, meant you had discretionary funds available to purchase life insurance for the breadwinner in the family.

Jewelry and other special insignia are available from certain organizations. The specific jewelry or insignia correlates to a specific position or experience in the organization. If an ancestor had a pin with a specific type of jewel, there is only one way he could have gotten it: by attending an encampment at a specific place and in a very specific year. And, by having the cash to pay for it along with his travel, his initiation fee, his membership, and so on.

There are also secrets we can decode in such things as membership vows. Some organizations specifically say you must believe in God, while others are broad enough to include Supreme Being. There may be other specifications such as minimum age limits.

Another little insight that is easy to overlook is that most organizations have traditionally held evening meetings. Obviously, people work during the day. To participate, members needed transportation. In fact, they needed night transportation. A farmer had to be pretty determined to hop in his wagon or on his horse to make it to a night meeting mid-week in the dark through the fields to town after working hard all day.

Researching Organizations

As we research, we realize we need to learn more about such member-based organizations in order to determine if they are useful research tools within a specific community. Not everyone is a member of such organizations. But, in smaller towns, you might be surprised how many people find the funds and join in the camaraderie.

Google any organization and you'll find a history. You'll also find information about the various officers a local chapter or order should have had. With a little research, you'll find information explaining what freat-grandpa's jeweled pin signified - and maybe even how much he paid for it. If there is a genealogical research component, the national website will typically explain if such information exists and where it is archived.

Even when ancestral information was not intentionally recorded, it will be scattered among the minutes and names will appear on charters. These are evidence that an ancestor was present at that time.

Don't overlook organizations as research tools. They can help you locate someone when they slip between those census records, and go here, there and yonder. In fact, membership serves as an entre into a new community. When a member relocated, they often connected with their new neighbors through that bond, much as we do today.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles