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Placing Ancestors Into History Through Fraternal Organizations

While there are many traditional sources to check when engaging in genealogical research, many family historians forget to check the records of fraternal organizations. These records often help to piece together ancestors' lives, adding details and uncovering sources for further research.


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Fraternal organizations can help family historians place their ancestors in the proper historical context. While there are many traditional sources to check when engaging in genealogical research, many family historians forget to check the records of fraternal organizations. These records often help to piece together ancestors' lives, adding details and uncovering sources for further research.

As far back as the 18th Century, men formed fraternal organizations for mutual protection and advice. However, immigrants, seeking financial protection for themselves and their families, banded together to obtain news from home, provide medical care and life insurance, and to network jobs and transportation to them.

Many of these organizations help preserve the history and heritage of a particular business, occupation, military engagement, time period, geographic area, specified and defined group of descendants, or ethnic group. Known as friendly societies in Britain, each developed for a different reason, and can be put into six categories–social, benevolent, ethnic, trade, religious, and political

Of all the fraternal societies in the world, the masons are probably the most well known. They can trace their roots to London in 1717 when four London groups of stonemasons created a centralized structure called the Grand Lodge. Most other fraternal organizations evolved from these original masonic groups.

As a group, the Masons have been active in the United States for more than 260 years. Some of its records date back to the 18th century. However, many Masonic lodge records have been lost in fires. Few records from the 18th and 19th Centuries are complete. However, most lodges have a published history. While men could become members at 21, most waited until around 35 to join.

All Freemasons belong to a lodge chartered by a Grand Lodge. In the U.S., there's one in each state. In addition to those, there are also 45 "Prince Hall" Grand Lodges in the U.S., whose membership consists mainly of African American men. Each of these Grand Lodges also charters individual lodges in each state.

Unfortunately, the Masons don't exactly have a network of Grand Lodges. Not all recognize each other, so the only place to seek information about Masons is to inquire at a particular Grand Lodge since there's no central location to find all information about all Masons.

The Knights of Columbus is open to Catholic males, 18 and up. The organization began in 1882 when Father Michael J. McGivney, a parish priest in New Haven, Connecticut, decided to form an organization for Catholic men. Even though the Catholic Church said that its members shouldn't be members of secret societies, Father McGivney felt that a Catholic fraternal organization was needed. The way the Knights of Columbus got around being a secret society was to not have an oath of secrecy.

A society even older than the Knights of Columbus is the Knights of Pythias. Founded by Justus H. Rathbone, this the society stresses friendship, charity and benevolence. The Pythian Sisters is an auxiliary group for the women, founded in 1888.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) originated in England, as the United Order of Odd Fellow. According to the group's history, its name came from its being singled out as a peculiar, or odd, group of people when the society was first established. Thomas Wildey began the first chartered Odd Fellows lodge in the U.S. in 1819. There were two earlier, but unchartered lodges, the first in Baltimore in 1802 and another in New York in 1806. In 1843, the American Odd Fellows cut their ties with the English group and began to refer to themselves as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

Oliver Hudson Kelley, a Minnesota farmer, founded the Grange, officially known as the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, in 1867. Kelley was a Mason and envisioned a fraternal organization for farmers. At its founding, the Grange was more of a union for the farmers to help them ban together for protection from being taken advantage of by merchants, farm suppliers, railroads and warehouses.

Joseph Cullen Root founded the Modern Woodmen of America, commonly known as the Woodmen, one of the first fraternal organizations created for benevolent reasons, in 1883. Since 1890, Woodmen has had nine presidents. From those fledgling days when the society had little money and no office space, the fraternal organization has grown to become one of the largest fraternal benefit societies, with membership of more than 845,000.

But before a family historian can seek information from a particular fraternal organization, he or she must first determine if their ancestor was a member. Some places to look include obituaries, probate records, personal papers, and biographies. But family historians can also find proof of membership by checking clothing and jewelry (most societies have some sort of ring or pin), even symbols on tombstones.

If an ancestor was a Woodmen, it's possible that his gravestone may bear the design of a tree stump or a stack of cut wood. Still other designs include branches coming out of the stump. Sometimes this emblem can be found on a bronze stake-type marker.

Locating fraternal organization records can be difficult. These are private records and aren't always accessible to family historians. However, many of these groups will respond to genealogical inquiries, but it's often necessary to contact them by regular mail. Some charge fees for searching their files. In general, these societies cannot supply genealogical information about an ancestor. What they can do is provide a look into an ancestor's involvement in the society.

Personal information in the files of these organizations usually includes full name, legal name, name changes, dates of admissions, lapses, suspensions, prior chapter memberships (transfers), level of membership, name of sponsor(s), obituary or funeral notice, and notice of funerary benefits to family members.

Records of fraternal organizations also contain a wealth of personal information in the form of membership application and death benefit claim forms. Membership applications generally include dates and place of birth, names of parents and siblings, religion, profession, place of residence (at the time of application), and medical information. Death benefit claims provide the date of death, but also contain much other information about the individual. In general, the higher a member's ranking in the fraternal organization, the more biographical information there will be about him.

Most fraternal organizations have also published their own histories and anniversary books which contain information about individual lodges and their members, as well as photographs. But they also provide the family historian with good background information on ethnic community life.

But how does the family historian find contact information for fraternal organizations. The Encyclopedia of Associations, available in most libraries, is the best place to start. Even though it's huge, the key to using it lies with the index volume together with the descriptive tables of contents found in the two main volumes. In the volumes containing the organizational abstracts, a family historian will discover which organizations might be worthy of further investigation.

After retrieving information from the Encyclopedia of Associations, a family historian can use WorldCat, a listing of the books and other materials held by several thousand libraries around the world. By searching the name of the association or organization to which an ancestor belonged to determine if other publications are available, it's possible to find which libraries own those publications. The WorldCat database also helps identify similar entries.

Information gathered from fraternal organizations can help to enhance the knowledge about an ancestor, making him or perhaps her, come alive once again in a family history.

Source Information: Family Tree Connection, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

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

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