Many societies, associations, and organizations are in some way committed to preserving the shared history of their members. This might include the history and heritage of a business or occupation, a geographical region or time period, or even a military unit or engagement. Personal information found in the records of these organizations might include full name, dates of admission and membership, and the name of a sponsor. Because many fraternal societies offered some type of death benefit, you may also find the date of death, an obituary or funeral notice, and a notice of funerary benefits to family members.
An unusual symbol on your ancestor's tombstone may indicate membership in a fraternal organization. A shield, helmet, or the letters “KP” or “K of P” may indicate membership in the Order of Knights of Pythias. The compass and square is a Masonic symbol commonly found on tombstones. A grave marker in the shape of a tree or tree stump often indicates a member of Woodmen of the World.
The number of societies that your ancestors may have joined is vast and includes ethnic, religious, charitable, political, fraternal, and social organizations. Most were formed for mutual benefit and protection purposes: to organize group medical care and life insurance, locate and obtain jobs for members, preserve the values of the members' homeland, or assist with assimilation into the New World. All offered a place for camaraderie and brotherhood. For these reasons, membership societies were especially important among immigrants, offering a sense of community identity while assisting with their transition into the larger American society.
Fraternal and benevolent organizations in America reached their zenith of popularity during the late nineteenth century, with an estimated one in five males belonging to at least one fraternal order. The Freemasons and the Odd Fellows were the two largest societies, each with nearly a million members. The Order of Patrons of Husbandry, more commonly known as the Grange, also attracted a large following.
Lineage and hereditary societies, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, have also been popular since the late nineteenth century. These societies each commemorate a different group of individuals, such as those who fought in the Civil War, or the first colonists to settle a particular area, and generally restrict their membership to individuals who can prove lineal descent from a qualifying ancestor.
Family organizations — groups of people who are descended from a single individual or are gathering information about all individuals with a particular surname — can be a good source for family history information, but not all of them are online. Try Directory of Family Associations, fourth edition, by Elizabeth P. Bentley and Deborah Ann Carl to help you locate active associations.
Many lineage societies maintain active libraries and publish a periodical or newspaper for their members. Because membership in a lineage society generally requires documented evidence of descent from a specific qualifying individual, you can often glean significant genealogical information from its files. This might include membership application papers, pedigrees, and supporting evidence, such as pages from the family bible, birth and death certificates, or military documents.
Clues that your ancestor belonged to a membership society can be found in many sources, including obituaries, tombstones, local histories, biographies, and family memorabilia. If you know or suspect that your ancestor belonged to a particular organization, the next step is to learn where those records might be located. Most fraternal organizations, lineage societies, and other associations do not have their records computerized or provide them online. You'll often have to contact them via e-mail, fax, or snail mail to obtain the information you seek. Contact information for such organizations can often be found online through a Google search.
Websites for many of the currently active fraternal benefit societies are linked to the National Fraternal Congress of America (