Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 18
Societies & Groups: General
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IBSSG's Grave Marker Acronyms
Many of our ancestors joined fraternal orders or organizations — associations of people bound together for philosophical, religious, literary, social, athletic, or philanthropic purposes. They were called friendly societies in Great Britain. A large number of these organizations are still in existence today. Many of them, while based on the Freemasons, would develop for different reasons. Broadly, there are about seven types of these organizations.
References to such organizations that your ancestor might have belonged to may be found in obituaries, funeral notices, and emblems on their tombstones. Sometimes you may find biographical data in the records these organizations generated. However, locating such records can be difficult. Keep in mind that these are private records and they are not always accessible to family historians. However, many of these groups will respond to genealogical inquiries, but it is usually necessary to contact them via snail mail. Some charge rather hefty fees for a search in their files. Some do not have the staff to handle mail queries. If you write, remember to include a business-size (No. 10) self-addressed stamped envelope and always offer to pay for the research service.
Friendly societies is the name used in Great Britain for voluntary benefit societies of any kind. They probably originated in the old burial clubs, which existed even in Greece and Rome. During the Middle Ages they were mixed with the guilds. A revival of these groups seems to have occurred among the Protestant refugees of Spitalfields. An act of 1793 in Great Britain recognized and encouraged them. After various laws a Royal Commission investigated them (1870-1874), and the act of 1875 regulated them (modified in 1887 and 1895). In Great Britain they are composed of orders like the Odd Fellows, Foresters, etc., general societies, county and town societies, deposit societies, collecting societies, annuity societies, etc., registered and unregistered. In England one out of every three inhabitants is a member of a friendly society.
This is by far the most well known of all the fraternal organizations. It can trace its roots to 1717 in London, England when four London lodges of operative masons (groups, similar to guilds, that were made up of stonemasons) developed a centralized structure, and called it the Grand Lodge. The original operative masons were stonemasons and it is suspected that the original secrets were actually trade secrets. It is the Freemasonry movement that most other fraternal organizations are based on. The various rituals and secret oaths of many other societies, can be traced to the Masons.
Freemasonry appears to have a place in much of our history. There is some evidence that the American Revolution was inspired by the Freemasons. And further indication that the Freemasons have influenced the American Constitution and other symbols of Americanism.
Throughout its history, Freemasonry has experienced a few difficult times. In the United States, for example, most notably was what happened in the early 1800s. William Morgan, a Freemason in Batavia, New York, who was in the process of publishing a book on the Masonic rituals, disappeared, and a major anti-Mason movement began. It was so strong that in 1827 a political party, the Anti-Mason Party, was formed. For 240 years, 1738-1977, the Catholic Church's Popes issued papal bulls denouncing the Freemasons. It was this denunciation that resulted in the creation of the Knights of Columbus.
If you are hoping to find information on the parents of an individual, you will not find this from the lodge records. In general fraternal associations are likely to have dates of initiation, possibly additional lodges the person may have been associated with, and the date of death. However, if your ancestor was high ranking in the fraternal organization, it is possible that you may discover more biographical material on him.
The Masons is a group that has been active in the United States for more than 260 years and some of its records exist as far back as the 18th century. For example, Pennsylvania's Masonic Grand Lodge was created in 1731; Massachusetts' in 1733; Georgia's in 1735; and South Carolina's in 1737.
However, many Masonic lodge records have been lost — mostly due to fires. Few records from the 1700s and 1800s are complete or are extant. However, you should inquire about a lodge's published history. There are some comprehensive ones and your ancestor may be mentioned therein. A man could petition a lodge for membership when he was 21, but he probably was closer to 35 when he did so.
Two Grand Masonic Lodges in the United States have suffered major loss of records. They are: California, which lost all of its records during the fire that occurred after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and Arkansas, which lost all of its records in a fire in 1918.
Before you fire off letters to the lodges, a word of caution: If you are seeking to learn the parents of your ancestor, you probably will not find that information in Masonic records. In fact, the early Masonic applications (prior to 1900) asked only for the applicant's name and age, along with three references. But, most family historians are delighted to discover any and all miniscule details about their ancestors, and these records may provide you with information that you were lacking.
If you know, or suspect, some of your ancestors were Masons, then you can write to one of the (state) Grand Masonic Lodges and include your ancestor's full name, the town and county in which he resided and the dates he lived there. Ask for the address of the local lodge in that state should they find your ancestor's record. Once you know the local lodge, then write to it as that is where the more complete records about an individual will be found. The state lodges usually only have information relating to the status of an individual's membership. Due to the number of requests from genealogists many Masonic lodges now charge for a search, and it can take a long time to obtain a reply.
The Knights of Columbus is open to Catholic males, 18 and up. It traces its beginning to 1882. Father Michael J. McGivney, a parish priest in New Haven, Connecticut, was the founder of this organization. The popes of the Roman Catholic Church had taken a stand since 1738 that members of the Catholic church should not be involved with secret societies.
However, Father Michael J. McGivney (1852-1890) felt that a Catholic fraternal organization was needed. So, on 9 January 1882 he met with a small group of men and the Knights of Columbus was created. Father McGivney suggested Sons of Columbus as a name for the order, but the word knights was chosen because key members of the organizing group — Irish-born Civil War veterans — felt it would help to apply a noble ritual in support of the emerging cause of Catholic civil liberty. The way in which the Knights of Columbus got around being a secret society was to not have an oath of secrecy. However, it asks candidates to keep the rituals secret.
Late in 1882 the Knights of Columbus received its charter from the State of Connecticut. Its primary goal was to give mutual aid and assistance to its members and families. Today the Knights of Columbus has almost 1.6 million members.
The Knights of Pythias is even older than the Knights of Columbus. It was founded by Justus H. Rathbone, who was himself a member of the Freemasons and the Red Men, two other fraternal organizations. Rathbone took his ritual from the story of Damon and Pythias of ancient Greece. Damon offered himself as security so that Pythias could visit his family. As the hour drew near for Pythias' execution, he was nowhere to be found. Being a true friend, Damon was ready to offer himself up in place. However, at the last moment, Pythias appeared. Touched by this friendship, the ruler Dionysius released them and asked to join their friendship. This society stresses friendship, charity and benevolence.
Membership is open to white males in good health. Its constitution does include a "white male" clause. As such, African Americans formed the Knights of Pythias of North America, Europe, Asia and Africa in 1969. There is an auxiliary group for the women that was founded in 1888 known as the Pythian Sisters.
For many years, the Knights of Pythias has been a beneficiary of the Cystic Fibrosis Research Foundation. They have other philanthropic projects as well. Some of those projects include aid in emergencies, camps for less fortunate children, and scholarships.
It is possible that you have seen reference to this society and not realized it. The abbreviation for this group is IOOF. In the town where one of the authors live these letters are painted on the side of one of the older buildings in the center of town. The building is no longer owned by the society, but it is one of those pieces of history that you often discover in small towns.
The IOOF originated in England, as the United Order of Odd Fellow. However, the origins of the organization are not clear. According to The Three Link Fraternity - Odd Fellowship in California, by Don R. Smith and Wayne Roberts, the name of the group stems from its being singled out as a peculiar, or odd, people when the society was first established. It seems to be an appropriate name, as those in the society shunned some of the practices in England at the time. In 1817, Thomas Wildey, an Odd Fellow, immigrated to the United States. The first chartered Odd Fellows lodge was begun on 26 April 1819 in Baltimore, Maryland at the Seven Stars Tavern. 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. It was at this time that they began to refer to themselves as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
The Odd Fellows claim to be the first mutual benefit society. Like many fraternal organizations, for quite some time it limited its membership to white males only. However, in 1971, it changed the constitution to allow African Americans. It has a female auxiliary, created in 1851, known as the Rebekah Assemblies.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows website offers helpful tips for those wishing information from the IOOF about their ancestors.
American television viewers who were fans of Little House on the Prairie series may recall the father character, Charles Ingalls, discussing "The Grange."
The Grange, officially know as the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, was established in 1867. The founder was Oliver Hudson Kelley, a Minnesota farmer. He'd been sent by Isaac Newton (the first American Commissioner of Agriculture) to the Southern states to report on the farms there after the Civil War. It was on this trip that got him thinking about the lack of unity and organization among farmers.
Kelley was a Mason and he envisioned a fraternal organization for farmers. In 1867 when it came to be, 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. However, it was slow going for Kelley to get his lodges started. In fact, had his wife not supported him with encouragement and money (from a recent inheritance), it is possible that he would have given up his dream of the Grange.
The Grange was the first fraternal organization to admit women as full-fledged members. Unlike other fraternal organizations that have developed female auxiliary groups, The Grange allows them to enroll as a regular members. The admission age for members is much younger than other organizations as well. Men and woman as young as 14 may seek membership in The Grange. While originally, this society was intended for farmers, apparently today if you have an interest in farming you can apply. The mother-in-law of one of the authors met her future husband at a grange social function in Idaho.
Woodmen was one of the first fraternal societies set up for benevolent reasons. The founder of the society, Joseph Cullen Root, was quite involved with insurance and societies that were directly connected with insurance. He was elected president of the Iowa insurance society Vera Amicitia Sempiterna in 1880. He organized the Iowa Legion of Honor, and in 1883 in Lyons, Iowa he founded Modern Woodmen of America, traveling to Omaha in 1890 to organize a new Modern Woodmen as the Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Association.
When the fledgling society was begun, Root was not only sovereign commander (president), but he was also editor of the society's magazine, Sovereign Visitor. He was responsible for the creation of the women's auxiliary, which eventually would be known as the Supreme Forest Woodmen Circle.
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.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Woodmen is the intricate grave markers you are likely to discover for your family members. If your ancestor was a Woodmen, it is 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. This marking of the gravestones was one of Root's objectives for the organization.
The society's motto states "no Woodmen shall rest in an unmarked grave." Even today, it is possible to purchase a bronze marker or for those who cannot afford one, the organization will supply a bronze stake-type marker.
United Grand Lodge of England
Additional references, widely available in larger American libraries, that can help you find other organizations to which your ancestors may have belonged are:
Encyclopedia of Associations. Gale Research. Usually reference sections of libraries
Fraternal Organizations, by Alvin J. Schmidt
Farmers' Organizations, by Lowell K. Dyson
Labor Unions, edited by Gary M. Fink.
Cyclopedia of Fraternities, by Albert C. Stevens.
A Dictionary of Secret and Other Societies, by Arthur Preuss.
Waite, Arthur Edward. A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (Ars Magna Latomorum) And of Cognate Instituted Mysteries: Their Rites, Literature and History (Two Volumes in One). New York: Weathervane Books, 1970
My Ancestor Was a Freemason, by Pat Lewis. Published by Society of Genealogists, 14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London EC1M 7BA. 1999.