Just recently, I have been working with a couple of fraternities to organize their papers into, a relatively, accessible archives. As I started to sort through the many minute books and rosters of members, I realized once again the value these books have for Family Historians and Genealogists. For someone who understands the history of a fraternity or benevolent association, the information contained in these pages could be invaluable.
Fraternal organizations and benevolent societies have been in existence since the times of Greece and Rome. The development of the Freemasons and their organizational scheme in the 1700s was a watershed time for all fraternal societies. Some historians go so far as to suggest that all benevolent organizations owe some credit to the Masons for leading the way in recruitment and membership.
The popularity of all fraternal organizations in the United States is particularly unique. Dating back to the Age of Jackson, the peculiar tendency of Americans to join fraternal societies was noted. In his work “Biography of a Nation of Joiners,” Arthur M. Schlesinger noted the popularity of fraternities in the United States. Membership seemed to expand exponentially after the Civil War. With the rise of industrialization, farmers moved to urban centers to find jobs in the factories. Increasingly, these farmers felt isolated, alienated, and living of the edge of financial ruin. In the event of death of the main bread winner a family could be left impoverished and with no means of survival.
The tendency towards sudden, violent death in the factories of the United States encouraged many workers to join benevolent societies and fraternal benefit organizations for financial security. These organizations guaranteed death benefits to families whose members died in the factories. Some of these groups evolved into labor unions, while others remained fraternal benefit organizations.
For Genealogists and Family Historians, all of this information is important as potential clues and direction to new research about our ancestors. Lists of members, benefits paid out, transfer requests, and simple minute books are all potential sources of information that may provide us with new information about our ancestors. Was your ancestor a member of the Royal Order of Hibernians? Or, were they members of the Order of Railway Conductors? After the Civil War, was an ancestor a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, or the Sons of the Confederacy?
There were hundreds of fraternal organizations and benevolent societies in the United States. If their records can be found, the membership of our ancestors may tell us a great deal for our family history.