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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Fraternal Organizations
by Rhonda R. McClure


Rhonda is taking a break this week, so this week's
column features highlights from past months. Enjoy!

May 18, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

An aspect of our ancestors' lives that few seem aware of is their involvement in one of the many fraternal organizations. These organizations were an everyday part of our ancestors' lives for those who joined them. Fraternal organizations have long taken heat for being secret societies, and in fact, the Masons, being one of the oldest societies, has felt the heat of such influential bodies as the Catholic church.

Many of the organizations that our ancestors joined were patterned after the Freemasons. Of course, the Freemasons are by far the most well-known of the fraternal organizations. There are some others though, a couple of which we will look at, that often will show up when researching your family history. Before looking at those, though, a quick look at the different types of secret societies that currently exist.

  1. Social
  2. Benevolent or Service
  3. Ethnic
  4. Trade
  5. Religious
  6. Political
  7. Criminal
Many of the fraternal or secret organizations that our ancestors joined were patterned after the Freemasons.

What Might You Find in These Records

First, let me point out that most organizations will not just open up their records to you. However, if you have information about your ancestor's involvement, then you can write and request information. Knowing who to contact is important. For the masons, the local lodge is the best place to begin your inquiries. This helps in not overwhelming the state's grand lodges with requests for information. It is important to know what to ask. In regard to the Masons, the information most apt to appear on the applications includes this:

  • Name of the applicant
  • Address of the applicant
  • Occupation of the applicant
  • Date of birth of the application
  • Name of spouse and children
  • In some instances, the name of the father of the applicant

This gives you an insight into what you might find on an application file. The other information most likely to be received from a lodge, as found in the records, include the dates of degrees attained and the offices held. You may discover a date of death in some instances.

A Little History

As was mentioned earlier, many of the organizations have based their own structure on that of the Masons. But what is the structure of the Masons? The Freemasons can trace their history back to 1717 in London, England. Four groups of operative masons (these groups were similar to guilds, in that they were made up of practicing stonemasons, honing their craft) existed. The secrecy appears to have stemmed from these original operative masons, who, it is suspected, were protecting their trade secrets.

Freemasonry has influenced much in America's history. There is evidence that the American Revolution was inspired by the Freemasons. And in fact, it is said that George Washington was a Mason. More information, including addresses for Grand Lodges, can be found in the web sites listed below.

Other Fraternal Organizations

First, there are far too many fraternal and secret societies to list them all here. However, there are some that have appeared over and over in questions from genealogists. So they are listed here with a very short history and a web site to find out more.

The Knights of Columbus are open to any Catholic males aged eighteen and up. If you will recall, I pointed out that the Catholic Church had denounced the Masons. However, Father Michael J. McGivney felt that Catholic men needed a fraternal organization to help with support. What to do? In 1882, he met with a group of men and formed the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. While they do request that members keep their rituals secret, unlike other fraternal organizations, there is no oath of secrecy.

The Knights of Pythias was found by Justus H. Rathbone, himself a Mason. So, it should not be too surprising their rituals are based on those of the Freemasons. This is one of the few organizations that has a "white male" clause in their constitution. This forced African Americans to form their own group. Like most fraternal organizations, this is a benevolent society, working hard to support their favorite and selected charities. Among their more notable members is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is another relatively old organization. And like others, it originated in England as the United Order of Odd Fellow. It is felt that the name stems from their being singled out as a peculiar people, primarily because they shunned some of the practices taking place in England at the time. Often referred to as the I.O.O.F., they claim to be the first mutual benefit society. For those with ancestors that were members, you will want to keep a look out for a triangle with three chain links, each with a letter in it. The letters represent their goals: Friendship, Love and Truth.

An Unexpected Organization

There is one society that you may not realize is a fraternal organization. The Grange is officially known as the Order of Patrons of Husbandry and was established in 1867. The founder was Oliver Hudson Kelley, a Minnesota farmer. If the Grange sounds vaguely familiar, you may have to confess to watching an episode or two of Little House on the Prairie as Charles Ingalls was a member of the Grange.

Oliver Hudson Kelley was a Mason, and after having been sent to report on the status of the farms in the southern states after the Civil War, he began to envision a fraternal organization. Unlike other organizations, had it not been for the complete support, encouragement and money from his wife, it is likely that he would have given up his dream.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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