Joining Hereditary Societies
Article by Mary Ames Mitchell, May 2, 2012
Updated May 31, 2015
A friend said to me, “You have a funny hobby. While some people collect stamps or baseball cards, you collect dead people.” It turns out that I am surrounded by like company. The director of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy stated in a speech to the San Francisco Colony of the Society of Mayflower Descendants, “The study of genealogy in America is now the second most popular hobby next to gardening.”
Having worked in the video game industry, I have doubts about that statistic. Nonetheless, this hobby is addicting. I have become a compulsive sleuth in search of hidden clues about the lives and times of my ancestorsobsessed with filling in every blank on the family tree as one would want to complete a jigsaw puzzle.
The question I’m most frequently asked is, “What do you do with the information once you find it?” There must be more to this hobby than a desire to print out elaborate family trees which no longer fit in the confines of your grandmother’s Bible.
Just as golfers avoid the glazed eyes of those friends and family not interested in golf, we amateur genealogists find it much more fun bragging about our latest ancestral finds in a club or society of other ancestor hunters.
These clubs range from simple-to-join online chat-rooms to clubs for which one must do some serious paperwork to prove a hereditary line, such as the Society of Mayflower Descendants or the Daughters of the American Revolution. But all these clubs provide friends who will be equally enthusiastic when you share your discovery that Great-Grandmother Annie was born in Australia, not England, where you just spent three weeks prowling through the dusty books of the London archives looking for her, while the rest of your traveling companions were out riding the London Eye.
Many of these clubs and societies, such as the New England Historic Genealogical Society, help your search in the form of lectures on new research techniques, hotlines for finding missing persons, maintaining genealogical databases and providing places for you to file your findings once you’ve found them so that other people can access them. It’s nice to know there are safe places for the fruits of your labor, and some people honestly care about what you’ve accomplished.
Where to Obtain Information about Hereditary Societies
There is a listing of over 300 hereditary societies with their qualifications, restrictions, descriptions, insignia, heraldry and all sorts of interesting genealogical tidbits and snippets on the web site of the Hereditary Society Community of the United States of America. But it’s not a complete list by any means. The Hereditary Society Blue Book lists over 660 organizations! I’ve listed some fun ones at the bottom of this article.
There are many books published showing ancestral lines to aid in your search. If your family came to America during colonial times and you suspect you have blue blood in your veins, try The Royal Descents of 500 Immigrants to the American Colonies of the United States by Gary Boyd Roberts.
The Mayflower Society
If you have uncovered a direct ancestor belonging to one or more of the twenty-six families who rode on the Mayflower to America in 1620, there are several clubs that would be happy to hear from you, particularly the Society of Mayflower Descendants. Theoretically, some 30 million people should qualify for membership in this society. There are currently 27,000 members worldwide. All of their documents are now safe and sound in the headquarters of the General Society in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Guidelines and forms on how to apply can be found on their web site. You will need to send your application to the society (each state has a different procedure) along with copies of the documents you have gathered proving your lineal descent from that passengeron average from twelve to fourteen generations. Acceptable documents include birth, marriage and death certificates, census records and photocopies of ancient family Bibles. Collecting all these bits of paper can be a bit tedious depending on how faithfully your family kept records. However, there are volunteers, known as historians, in the society willing to guide youto a point. I must emphasize the word volunteer.
The Daughters of the American Revolution – DAR
If you have run across ancestors who assisted the patriots during the American Revolution, you could follow a similar procedure to apply for membership in the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR)or the National Society Sons of the American Revolution (NSSAR). I'll tell you what I know about the DAR.
The DAR has over 163,000 members and requires documentation showing the links from the woman applicant to each generation hooking her up to the American patriot. Membership information is found on their web site and there are volunteers, known as registrars at the local level willing to help you, too.
Some hereditary societies are more restrictive, such as the family societies in which all the members have descended from just one person. But if you like family reunions, these clubs may be just the thing for you. I recently found out I qualify to be in the Wolcott Society. All of its members descended from the Wolcott who settled Connecticut in the 1600s. The Wolcott Society has reunions. Once I can prove I belong to this family, I could be invited. That means I could meet all sorts of new family members I never knew existedthirteenth and fourteenth cousins! Who cares how distantly we are related? Family is family once you’ve become a genealogy addict. Look at what happened to Whoopie Goldberg when her ancestral roots were discovered in Africa. The bonus prize is that these new family members are terrific resources for more ancestor hunting.
If you are motivated by competition, there is plenty of fuel for you. Some genealogy buffs compete with each other to see how far back in time they can prove their ancestry. At least 1200 people have documented their ancestry to Charlemagne who was born in the year 772, qualifying them to belong to the International Society of the Descendants of Charlemagne. Some go further than that! There is a society called the Order of the Merovingian Dynasty, which consists of ladies and gentlemen who are lineal descendants of the first King of the Merovingian Dynasty, Merovech, King of the Salic Franks from 448-457. Twenty-three members who could document that ancestry founded the order just a few years ago.
DAR members compete to see how many patriots they can find. Each time a “sister” proves a line of descent to a patriot who helped in the Revolutionary War, she is elible to purchase a thin gold pin called an ancestor bar on which is engraved the name of that Revolutionary ancestor. Those pins may be worn on a blue ribbon attached to her garment on her left shoulder, something like a general’s ribbons, which she may proudly wear at the monthly DAR meetings, or other DAR functions. [We have shown you a ribbon in the photo above. The ancestor bars are the stick-like pins in the lower left section of the ribbon.
Many genealogy buffs try to see how many different societies they can join. A member of the Mayflower Society qualifies to belong to the National Society of Old Plymouth Colony Descendants (though the reverse does not necessarily apply). Do you remember your English history?, If you descended from the Plantagenets and qualify for the Plantagenet Society, you also descended from Charlemagne and may qualify for the International Society of the Descendants of Charlemagne).
Which Society is the Most Prestigious?
A friend of mine belongs to the Order of the Merovingian Dynasty, as well as thirty other societies that are listed in the Blue Book. One day I asked him which of the hereditary societies he believed has the most restrictive qualifications, not counting those which require tracing your ancestry back 1000 years. He suggested it might be the Order of the Founders and Patriots of America, known as the OFPA. Current membership for the OFPA is around 1200 nationally. I looked this group up on the Hereditary Society Community site. The description states, “If one is a man of the age of eighteen years, of good moral character and reputation and a citizen of the United States, and lineally descended in the male line of either parent, from an ancestor who settled in any of the Colonies now included in the United States of America prior to 13 May 1657 and has an intermediate ancestors in the same line who lived in the period of the Revolution from 1775 to 1783, adhered as patriots to the cause of the Colonies” he is eligible for membership.
Some societies require you to belong to one club before they can become a member of another. For example, to apply to the National Society Americans of Royal Descent, not only must you prove you have blue blood from the British Isles, but you must be a member of either the Colonial Dames of America or the National Society Colonial Dames of America.
Many of these societies declare that their membership is by invitation only. Let me remind you that as long as a group does not receive government funds or have 501(3)c tax status, its members have the Constitutional right to be as selective, restrictive, snobbish, unwelcoming and/or protective of their membership as the little hearts of its members desire. In fact, I have been sternly warned that one of these societies, the First Families of Virginia takes this so seriously that if a person who desires to belong shows the initiative and brings up the subject of membership to anyone in the society, the person desiring membership could be blackballed forever from joining. (The First families of Virginia are descendents of the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia. They have about 675 members.)
Do not fret. There are hereditary societies for just about any group of people you can think ofnot just descendants of people who settled a specific town, descendants of people who immigrated to America on the same boat, or descendants of people from the same Native American tribe.
And, if you do not find a society to which your gene set applies, then you can start your own. Thanks to the web, the organizing is easy.
What Do People Do In These Clubs?
The activities in these societies vary tremendously. Some meet frequently to carry out lists of philanthrophic activities. I believe the Flagon and Trencher club just meets at a friendly pub now and then for a swig.
Both the Mayflower Society and the DAR were established at the second half of the nineteenth century. They have established libraries to house and protect documents of historical nature. The Mayflower Society owns a beautiful home and library in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the DAR maintains its headquarters and library in Washington, D.C. (Note the address at 1776 D Street. Their telephone number also ends with 1776!) The DAR is very philanthropic. Through fundraising activities among its members, it supports four schools for handicapped children. If you have ever visited sites marking events from the Revolutionary War, you may have noticed that the brass markers were donated by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.
The Mayflower Society is divided into local Colonies, which meet about four times a year. There are sixteen colonies in the state of California. Hawaii has one. Our colony holds a lunch, lasting about three hours. The meetings open with a pledge of allegiance to the American Flag and an invocation. Members relax and socialize during lunch then the meeting continues with the reading of the Mayflower Compact (a contract signed by the men on the Mayflower that agreed on rules for getting along once they stepped on shore)to remind us of our history. Our Governor (equal to a president) conducts a meeting of about twenty minutes to keep our group organized, takes a roll call of ancestors and finally gives the floor to a guest speaker chosen because he/she has something of historical interest to talk about.
Every three years there is a gathering in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the entire General Society of Mayflower Descendents and their families. It lasts about five days. The event allows members to gather from all over the world to meet with other members who are often distant cousins. Field trips are organized around Plymouth and Cape Cod to visit sites such as the few existing Pilgrim houses and the recreated Plimouth Village. One year we were invited to the privately owned Clark Island in Plymouth Harbor to mount the rock where our Pilgrim ancestors held their first church service. Many of us take advantage of the chance to use the Mayflower Library to search for more ancestors. There is also a parade through town for which we dress up as pilgrims using the costumes provided by the society. It’s one way to keep history alive for those who want to.
My local DAR chapter meets much more frequently and asks more of its members. On the second Saturday of every month the group conducts atwo-hour meeting that is followed by a twenty-minute guest lecture. The fact that we are all women adds its own flavor to the group. National meetings for the DAR occur every year at the beautiful and stately headquarters in Washington DC. State conferences occur every other year.
At last count the Descendants from Whaling Masters (founded by a woman, no less) was organizing a lobster feast in New Bedford, Massachusetts. This society is connected to a larger organization, the Whaling Museum of Bedford. Membership is not by invitation yet is still exclusive, since one must have descended from or be related to someone who descended from a whale master. A “crew” level membership exists for descendents of mere whalemen. The purpose of their group is to “preserve and keep safe whaling artifacts and records; to work on projects which increase understanding of the whaling era’s many aspects; to inform young people of the significance of the period and its impact on world economy; and to enjoy the sharing of common interests”.
If I ever stop writing and have more time for joining, I want to join the Order of Descendants of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company. The AHAC is America’s oldest regiment and the world’s third oldest contracted organization. It was founded in 1637, seven years after John Winthrop brought his fleet of some 1000 colonists to America to settle Boston. Today the company has a museum on the fourth floor of the historic Faneuil Hall in Boston. Framed images of its past commanders over the last 370 years line the walls. My ancestor, Ambrose Dawes, joined the regiment in 1674. Four presidents fought with this regiment: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, James Monroe, Chester Arthur, and Calvin Coolidge. Over 800 in today’s regiment are fighting for freedom in Iraq and Afganistan while I revise this article.
My great-aunt Rosemary spent her entire life researching my family tree. She used to say to me that getting to know our ancestors helps us get to know ourselves. She did not have the advantage of the Internet. Tony Burroughs, the author of the book Black Roots, said, “Researching family history gives you a foundation for life. It lets you know that you stand on your ancestors’ shoulders and helps you understand why you are here today."
Here is that partial list I promised you of fun societies you might check out.
Associated Daughters of Early American Witches [230 members]
Flagon and Trencher [descendants of colonists that owned taverns]
Order of Three Crusades 1096-1192
Society of Descendants of Knights of the Most Noble Order of the Garter
Society of the Founders of the City of New Orleans
Sons of Sherman's March to the Sea