Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Robert WilbanksFraternal Orders: Societies of our Ancestors

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

A very little used resource in the Family history hunt are records created by Fraternal Organizations. Like us, our ancestors were social, with a desire to connect with other people as part of a community.

They often found like-minded people to connect with, usually in order to help serve the community or society, to network in a particular industry, share common experiences, or just share interests. This social bond would eventually develop into formally organized Fraternal Orders.

A Fraternal Order is generally defined as “. . . an organized society of men (or women, or both) associated together in an environment of companionship and brotherhood.” Some examples of Fraternal Orders are Masons, Oddfellows, Knights of Pythias, Knights of Columbus, Woodmen of the World, Order of the Eastern Star, and much more. Some Scottish-American organizations include The Benevolent Order of Scottish Clans, Daughters of Scotia, and in Canada The Sons of Scotland. There are many different Scottish groups around the world that utilize the name Saint Andrew’s Society. Auxiliary societies were often formed for women and children.

Fraternal Orders eventually grew to become national, or even international, in scope. They could be found within a geographic region, with national, state or local groups, having monthly meetings, annual conferences, etc. These societies can be religious based, whether founded by the Jewish, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist etc, churches, or they can be politically based. There were also many professional or industry-based societies and they can be ethnic such as German, French, Irish or Scottish. So, your ancestors’ membership in any of these can indicate a character trait, skill, interest or a type of view or belief.

The types of information that can be found in these society records are varied, depending on the organization, and the type of information they considered important to keep. Most significantly, minimally, fraternal records can place your ancestor in a time and place. This is significantly important during the years between the census, or in areas where many other records were lost or destroyed. Other possible information found in these records can include age, residence, former residence, date of death, spouse or other family members or relationships, activities involved in, official roles, etc. Sometimes, these societies can have newsletters, with news about members. So, there is great potential for direct information, as well as implied information.
However, as these are often private and volunteer-based organizations, there can be issues regarding these societies, their records, their policies, access to records, and more. For example, first, what kinds of information or records did they keep? Were historic records retained or destroyed? Where are these historic records today? Are the records accessible? Open or Closed? Is there a contact person? Are they able to help? Are they willing to help? And more.

Of course, first, you will have to find out and confirm if your ancestor belonged to a Fraternal Order. Excluding direct knowledge provided by family members, direct or implied information in other areas of your genealogy research may provide clues to such memberships. Examples of what to look for include obituaries, which may state outright evidence of such a membership. Location of the burial, such as in a society’s section of a cemetery, or the design of the tombstone itself, can be clues to societal membership. County histories, noting such Fraternal Orders and local resident membership, can help. Other records that may provide clues, such as local directories, church histories, newspapers, and more.

Once you identify your ancestor’s possible society membership, then you will need to research the Fraternal Order itself, including its history, current status and location, etc. This will be an important part of your genealogy research. You will need to learn about national, state and local chapters, both current and historical, as well as learning about their records, where those records are currently stored, and who to contact regarding help or having access to the records, etc. Cyndi’s List is just one site that provides links to possible relevant websites for Fraternal Orders as a genealogy resource:

Of course, like any other aspect of genealogy, the key is to know the right place and the right time to search your ancestor and the various Fraternal Organizations that may be associated with the ancestor’s place of residence. But the effort will certainly be beneficial when you find information about your ancestors that yo

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.