September 18th, 2013

3 Fraternal Organizations Your Ancestor May Have Been a Member Of

How many of us think about fraternal organizations or benefit societies as a source of genealogical information? I’m not talking about college fraternities, but brotherhoods such as the Odd Fellows, Masons, Elks, and the Knights of Pythias. These groups were flourishing at the beginning of the 20th century, in fact about 85% of American males belonged to such a society at that time. These organizations often had an ethnic composition, so members had culture, language, and memories of their homeland in common; thus their popularity.

But companionship was not all that these organizations offered their members. They also sold insurance which covered sickness, disability, and burial, often at very affordable prices. They were also dedicated to caring for the widows and orphaned children of members, published their own newspapers, and sponsored classes that helped their members adjust to their new American community and way of life. Additionally they supported orphanages, homes for the elderly, and social and sports clubs. What does all this mean to the genealogist? Well, records were generated of course!

Following is a quick summary of three major fraternal organizations in the United States, what kind of records they generated, and where you might find them.

  1. Freemasons. The Freemasons are probably the most well known of fraternal organizations, not just in the United States, but around the world. Freemasons arrived on American shores from England in 1733, making it one of the earliest such organizations in the country. Freemason records are generally ion the form of Lodge records which may contain information on members such as; date of joining the organization, rank held, offices held, and so on. You may also find biographical documentation on prominent members, which can be found at individual lodges, a directory of which can be found at the Freemasons Website.
  2. Grand Army of the Republic. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was formed with the intention of cultivating friendship, comradeship, and patriotism among the Union veterans who had served in the US military (land or sea) during the Civil War. The GAR is responsible for establishing Memorial Day as an American national holiday. The GAR was a three-tired organization with positions held at local, county, and state level. Its primary duties were to protect and assist disabled soldiers and their families and to promote appreciation for those who served their country through social, moral, or political activity. They are an excellent go-to source if your ancestor was a Civil war veteran, and many of their records can be browsed online at the GAR Website.
  3. Modern Woodmen of America. The Modern Woodmen of America are an excellent example of a fraternal benefit society. They were founded in 1883 with a view to providing financial security to families across America from all walks of life. Despite its name the organization was not limited to those who worked in forestry or woodworking. The name was rather devised from a sermon that discussed “pioneer woodmen clearing the forest for the benefit of man.” There are two types of records that this organization offers the genealogist; business records of various units, and records of benefits paid. The latter group are of more interest to genealogists, as they obviously will include names. The Woodsmen have maintained records from 1884-1946, though access to them must be made by request via the Modern Woodmen Website.