Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.
Sometimes known as fraternal orders or friendly societies, fraternal societies are groups of people--typically men--drawn together by common interests, which may provide certain benefits to its members, as well as providing service within a community. Membership within these organizations is restricted and typically depends of the invitation or sponsorship of another member. In England, friendly societies were mutual aid organizations aimed at helping protect workers against hardship. In America, societies were formed to provide similar protection for immigrants and their families, many of whom were employed in dangerous industrial occupations. Fraternal societies often provided insurance and other benefits. Many such societies evolved into social and benevolent brotherhoods, often referenced as secret societies that feature elaborate initiations and rituals. Some of the most widely recognized fraternal organizations include the Freemasons (Masons), Knights of Columbus, and the International Order of Odd Fellows.
It is not uncommon for family history researchers to find evidence that an ancestor belonged to a fraternal organization. And the type of personal and family information collected by fraternal societies could be quite useful to genealogists. However, expect some challenge in accessing such information. Although fraternal societies often published histories and various records of membership, such records are typically not readily available through any central authority. Researchers are advised to contact the local chapter or lodge of an organization for information. Information may also be available through genealogy libraries, local public libraries, and on the Internet. Regardless of what you might find in the way of personal information, what you learn about a particular society may illuminate the life and times of your ancestors.
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