Finding Ancestors through Societies & Memberships

By BPL (Buffalo Baseball Team, 1882  Uploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By BPL (Buffalo Baseball Team, 1882 Uploaded by Fæ) [CC-BY-2.0 ( ], via Wikimedia Commons

The members of one particular family group I’ve studied, the Laughlins of Bradford PA, all share one interesting non-genetic trait. They were, all six of them, joiners.

How do I mean?

  • Pa belonged to The Protected Home Circle and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers.
  • Ma belonged to the Confraternity of the Rosary.
  • Older sis was part of the Catholic Girls Club and both sisters belonged to the Ladies Club of Bradford.
  • Older bro  joined the Lion’s Club of Bradford and American Legion of Bradford, and both brothers were members of the Knights of Columbus. (The younger brother was Edward Laughlin, a likely suspect for my Grampa’s natural father.)

I do believe we can call that a pattern.

These tidbits came to me through newspaper mentions, primarily obituaries. I could dismiss these memberships as filler or note them as facts and leave it at that, but why not dig deeper?

Explore Every Avenue

The new family historian quickly learns the value of cluster genealogy, studying family groups instead of individuals and using extended family lines to break through brick walls, but why stop there? You can’t pick your family, as the saying goes, but you can pick your friends and associates. I’ve gleaned some fascinating insights about my ancestors by examining the societies and memberships they chose for themselves.


The first mention of a lodge I encountered was in one of those great old county histories, Landmarks of Steuben County, New York by Lewis Cass Aldrich. Levi S. Cornell (photo here) was a member of “McClellan Lodge, No. 649, F. & A. M.” (1). Sounds interesting—except I had no idea what it meant.

Some of you may be way ahead of me. F. & A. M. stands for Free and Accepted Masons, and as Wikipedia suggests, that could mean a lot of things. Time to dig in and learn more about freemasonry.


Church affiliations often show up in obituaries (though for accuracy, note the difference whether your relative “was a member” or simply “attended” the church). If you find your ancestor numbered in a congregation, find out what that church taught. What did they believe? Also, consider looking into the specific church’s history and clues into your ancestor’s world.

My 3rd g-grandparents Martha Ellen Forsythe and Stephen Wertz were married July 12, 1863 at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania (2). Their marriage record along with the attendance/communion (3) and confirmation (4) records show that this was Martha’s church between 1856-1863. Tucked inside the record book is a handwritten historical sketch of the church, showing that the church was not unaffected by “the excitement and political rancor of the War of the Rebellion,” but also that they were able to hire a full-time pastor for the first time and built a parsonage during those years (5), suggesting local prosperity. This matters to me because Martha Forsythe was working as a servant in Lewisburg in 1860, in the household of Phineas Man, who was an Old School Presbyterian clergyman (6)!  Was it a source of tension that she did not attend her employer’s church? What did Old School Presbyterian mean? More research for me, I suppose, because this example is running long!

Political Parties

If you learn of a political affiliation, run with it. Discover what that meant in the context of the day. What were the national debates going on during your ancestors’ lifetime? What does their political affiliation tell you about their opinions on the matter?

For example: several years ago, I found History of Tioga County Pennsylvania, with Illustrations, Portraits and Sketches of Prominent Families and Individuals, transcribed online at the incomparable Tri-Counties Genealogy & History by Joyce M. Tice. The book included a short blurb on my 4th great-grandfather, Dr. Albert Mortimer Loop. What made it special? Only that Dr. Loop actually wrote the section!

Therefore, when he wrote of himself, “He is a staunch Democrat in politics, having voted that ticket for 42 years,” he summarized his political leanings from 1841-1883. He would have voted for Lewis Cass (1848) and Stephen A. Douglas (1860), both of whom supported popular sovereignty on the question of slavery. Perhaps he wrote impassioned op-ed pieces for the Wellsboro Agitator when Democrat Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote in 1876, but lost the election to Rutherford B. Hayes.

Clubs and Service Organizations

As we already saw with the Laughlins of Bradford, interest groups and and service organizations are a superb way to know what mattered to our ancestors. Clara Wertz Heineman, daughter of Stephen and Martha, was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union [Source: Mrs. Clara Heineman obituary clipping, presumably from the Olean Times Herald, Oct 16, 1953]. What did she think when her son married a girl whose grandfather had been arrested for bootlegging!? When Malita Clemons Witter co-chaired a send-off for draftees in September 1942 (7), was her heart in her throat for her oldest son Leroy, who would be stationed at Camp Lee, Virginia within three months (8)?

To Be Continued!

This is such a rich topic, it turned into a two-part episode. On Thursday we’ll talk about more social communities that reveal aspects of our ancestors’ lives.

Question for You

Have you made any discoveries involving your ancestor’s memberships or communities? Have a tip to share? Leave a comment!

14 Replies to “Finding Ancestors through Societies & Memberships”

    1. That’s true; I didn’t. I’ve known about some of the examples I mentioned for a long time, but I just marked the fact and moved on until it occurred to me to wonder what I could learn from those memberships. I think it’s a really good direction to take when you have someone really interesting and you’ve got their vital statistics and a basic time line of their life.

      1. I was reading a post from a different blogger and she has actually contacted some of the fraternal organizations to see if there are further records for her ancestor. She got some good stuff.
        I know my grandfather was a mason. Among his papers is a small book (like a yearbook) that lists all the “class” members that were accepted that year. By itself the book is a great resource. There are pictures of all the members with their names, residences and occupations.
        After I posted my original post, I realized that you probably thought I was calling you a beginner. I was trying to say that what you posted was great advice for beginners (or anyone who needs new sources of information). 🙂

        1. That’s exciting! I contacted a club once and didn’t get a reply, but it’s still worth doing when the organization still exits.

          And no worries–I knew what you were saying. Besides, compared to you I am a beginner! I know I wrote about this– the days are counting down on my Ancestry subscription, which should spur me to think a little harder about alternative sources.

  1. So far I haven’t run across any organization references but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. These entries are a good reminder and tells me maybe I’d better look again and closer.

  2. Hi Brandy. Genealogy is one of my passions. I love that photo of the baseball team and! My grandfather belonged to something called “The Old Fellows.” The name alone disturbs me, and I haven’t the foggiest idea of what the Old Fellows believed. My grandmother belonged to a secret society called “The Rebecca Lodge.” I don’t know what that was either–probably the female version of “Odd Fellows.” Aside from that, they were loyal Methodists.

    1. Hi Sheryl! I’d love to find an ancestor of my own on a local baseball team, but alas. 🙂

      I have heard of the Odd Fellows but not the Old Fellows. Sounds like a mystery… 🙂 From what I read about Lodges, membership required acknowledging a Higher Power, but essentially left it up to the individual to interpret what that meant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *