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This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy
Our ancestors belonged to organizations just as we do, and these organizations created records that can tell us more about their lives and interests. Membership records place an individual in a time and place—information that can lead us to other records. Details from membership applications and records often include dates and places that can be very helpful in our genealogical research. The organizations discussed in this section are representative of the types that exist, though in terms of numbers they include only a small percentage of those that have existed over the years.
Fraternal Organizations and Fraternal Benefit Societies
At the beginning of the twentieth century, about eighty-five percent of adult males in the United States belonged to a fraternal organization such as the Masons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, and Elks. Members in a given society shared a military experience, religion, or occupation. Often the organizations had an ethnic composition, so members shared language, culture, and memories. The social organization was only one benefit to members. Organizations sold, for a relatively low price, insurance that covered sickness, disability, and burial. The organizations also had an obligation to care for the widows and orphaned children of members. The fraternal organizations often published their own newspapers, sponsored classes in Americanization, and supported orphanages, homes for the aged, and social clubs. While there were hundreds such ethnic organizations, the most important ones appear in List of Ethnic Organizations.66 Descriptions of many fraternal organizations appears in Schmidt’s Fraternal Organizations.67
Membership in fraternal organizations frequently is designated by initials or a symbol on tombstones. Knowing what the initials or the insignia stand for can lead the family historian to additional records for research. A partial list of abbreviations appears below in Tombstone Initials and Their Meanings2. More abbreviations may be found at the ObitCentral.
Freemasonry came to the United States from England in 1733, making it one of the earliest fraternal organizations in the country. For more than two centuries, it was an influential institution because of the membership of prominent individuals. Lodge records are generally limited to membership information: date of joining the lodge, rank attained, offices held, and so on. There may be biographical material on some lodge leaders. Members in the Blue Lodge or basic unit are divided into three degrees, with the highest being Master Mason. Membership information is available from existing units. Each state’s Grand Masonic Lodge maintains only membership status records but should be contacted first for the name of the probable membership lodge. Contact that lodge for more complete information. The Freemasons website is a good place to begin a search for membership organization. The attached image indicates Fred Harry Carter was a member of the Freemasons.
Modern Woodmen of America
One example of a fraternal benefit society is Modern Woodmen of America. The organization was founded in 1883 by Joseph Cullen Root, who dreamed of a fraternal benefit society that would provide financial security to families from all walks of life. Despite its name, the organization was never limited to those involved in forestry or woodworking, but rather came from a sermon discussing “pioneer woodmen clearing the forest for the benefit of man.” Members lived in the less urban areas of the country’s north. Members photographed in uniform carried heavy axes and had insignia on their hats, as shown in the attached image. One of the most interesting aspects of the Woodmen is the distinctive tombstones found at the graves of members. Likely the design includes a tree stump or the design of one carved on a marker.
Modern Woodmen offers two types of records: the business records of various units, called lodges, and records of benefits paid, which of course are more interesting to genealogists. The first death benefit was issued in 1884 to a Davenport, Iowa, widow, whose husband died from “indiscretion in eating confectionery, ice cream, etc. on the Fourth of July, with the incident excitement and heat.” Records from then through 1946 will be searched upon request; details are available at the website.69
Grand Army of the Republic
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was formed to cultivate fraternity, comradeship, and patriotism among Union veterans who had served in the United States on land or sea during the Civil War, 1861–1865. Founded in Illinois in 1866, the organization spread quickly throughout the country. During the late nineteenth century, GAR had considerable influence in state and national politics. Among other things, members promoted the establishment of Memorial Day as a national holiday.
GAR featured a three-tiered organization: posts at the local or precinct level, districts at the county level, and departments at the state level. Meetings had multiple purposes: to promote the organization, to protect and assist disabled soldiers and their families, and to promote appreciation of service to the country through moral, social, and political activity. An example of post records is the Utah register shown in the attached image. A list of GAR posts arranged by department may be found in Albert E. Smith, Jr.’s The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies: A Guide to Resources in the General Collections of the Library of Congress, which may be accessed online.69
The GAR almost disappeared in the early 1870s, and many state units disbanded. New leadership about 1875 led to new growth, and in 1890, the GAR reached its largest membership of just over 490,000. In 1949, six surviving members permanently closed the organization.70
Because membership in the GAR was so widespread, any genealogist with an ancestor who fought in and survived the Civil War should look for membership information on that ancestor.
Survival of the records is good, and many are available in print or on the Web. Some examples follow, and researchers should always check Cyndi’s List for additional listings.
- Grand Army of the Republic Department of Illinois Transcription of the Death Rolls, 1879–1947. St. Louis: Northcott Publications, 2003.
- “Index to Necrology Lists in Kansas G.A.R. Encampments, 1884–1942.”
- Roster of the Members and the Posts, Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Kansas. Topeka: Department of Kansas, 1894.
- Sargent, A. Dean, comp. Grand Army of the Republic: Civil War Veterans, Department of Massachusetts, 1866 to 1947. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 2002.
- Richardson, Antona Hawkins. Roll of the Dead, 1886–1906: Department of Minnesota, Grand Army of the Republic. St. Paul: Paduan Press, 2000.
- Concannon, Marie, and Josiah Parkinson, comps. Grand Army of the Republic—Missouri Division—Index to Death Rolls, 1882–1940. Columbia: State Historical Society of Missouri, 1995.
- Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Missouri. Roster of the Department of Missouri, Grand Army of the Republic, and Its Auxiliaries. Kansas City: Western Veteran, 1895.
- Roster of the Department of Missouri, Grand Army of the Republic, 1895. Springfield, Mo.: The Camp, about 1999.
- Myers, Jane, comp. Honor Roll of Oregon Grand Army of the Republic, 1881–1935: Deaths Reported in Oregon of Members of the GAR, Extracted from Proceedings of the Annual Encampments of the Department of Oregon, Grand Army of the Republic. Cottage Grove, Ore.: Cottage Grove Genealogical Society, about 1980.
Jewish Foundation for Education of Women, 1880 to 1988
Since 1964, the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women has provided nonsectarian scholarship assistance to disadvantaged women seeking to better themselves through higher education. The organization traces its origins to the Louis Down Town Sabbath School, founded in 1880 to help underprivileged children of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. From 1895 to 1932, operating as the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, it offered courses in commercial and industrial arts to young women. Directors closed the school in 1932 and developed a program of scholarship assistance to women. Although the foundation became nonsectarian in 1964, it retained the term “Jewish” in its title as a reminder of its heritage. Manuscript records include correspondence, minutes, annual reports, case files, registers of scholarship recipients, and miscellaneous administrative records.71
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