“So May It Be…” Discovering Masonic Records

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Freemasonry has been the subject of heightened interest in the past few years thanks to books such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol. Television programs explore historical fact and conspiracy theory on a regular basis. Such interest is not new as the Masonic order, its intent and influence, have been explored and debated for centuries. You may have discovered a personal Masonic connection as you sifted through family papers or visited a cemetery in which ancestors have been buried. Your discovery of a gravestone inscribed with a Masonic emblem, or a certificate of membership or other Masonic-related artifact may have inspired you to learn more about your ancestor’s Masonic activities. [You may even believe that an often-quoted Masonic motto, ordo ab chao (order out of chaos), applies to your genealogical research goal!]

Freemasonry is a world-wide fraternal and secret society whose existence has been documented as early as the fourteenth century. It was founded by stone masons, described as “freemasons” to differentiate them from masons who were serfs. Initially, these freemasons were the only individuals allowed into membership. Some two hundred years later, in 1619, individuals from other professions began to be “accepted” into the society after paying twice the normal amount of dues, thus the name – “Free and Accepted Masons.” The society in its current form has existed since about 1717, and by 1994 in the United States alone, there were 3,000 chapters and 300,000 members. Masons progress through several levels, or degrees, in what is known as the Craft or Blue Lodge, including Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason (the third degree). Some appendant bodies, to which a Master Mason may choose to belong, include the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Masonry, probably in existence in some form as early as 1733, but in its modern form in the United States after it was established in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1801; and the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, organized in 1870 in New York City. Other affiliated groups include the Royal Arch Masons and the Commandery of Knights Templars. Many famous individuals have been Masons, including many of our founding fathers, Civil War generals, and other notables. An interesting and eclectic list can be found online.

Research into Masonic membership is not an easy task as there is no central repository for membership information and no guarantee that a given lodge’s records were preserved. Many individuals, writing about using Masonic membership records for genealogical purposes, state that there is no information of genealogical value in them. I disagree and can only assume that the writers do not understand the nature of genealogical research. Typically, such membership records include the member’s name (given names may have been recorded as initials only depending on the era); birth (and perhaps place of birth) and death dates; the lodge name, number and location; and the dates associated with an individual’s three degrees of membership (Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft and Master Mason or, alternatively, initiated, passed, raised). Sometimes the records also include the date a petition was voted on by the lodge (elected); former lodge affiliation and the date of acceptance into the new lodge, when applicable); had demitted (perhaps to move to another lodge which might be noted); had been suspended or expelled; and whether or not he had held  an office within the lodge. I would argue that information of value may indeed be contained in such records – vital record information, evidence of residency; and evidence of relocation from one city or town to another, to mention just a few genealogically significant inclusions.

How, then, can such records be accessed?

If you believe that your ancestor was a Mason, the first step is to establish where he lived (this may involve one or more locations) during that period. In particular, establish where he lived at age 35, a common age for filing a Masonic application.

Next, determine the lodge to which he may have belonged. You can search for lodges online at such sites as Ancestry’s “Worldwide Masonic Directory, 1860,” a database derived from the Universal Masonic Record and Directory published in 1860 which listed the names of over 10,000 Masons who submitted their information for publication. (Please note that access to this database requires an Ancestry subscription. If you do not have a personal subscription, you will be able to access this database through your local library’s subscription to AncestryPlus). Searching at random, I found a membership entry for an Avery A. Smith, a merchant from Eugene City, Lane County, Oregon, who belonged to Eugene Lodge. By consulting Masonic Lodge Locations, Find a Mason Lodge, I was directed to the webpage of the Grand Lodge of Oregon where I was able to identified Eugene Lodge #11, its address (with link to Googlemaps), its secretary’s name, phone number and email address, and the fact that the lodge meets on the second Wednesday of every month at 7:30 p.m. With this information, I could write the lodge secretary to request any membership information that might be available for Avery A. Smith. Remember that the secretary’s position is voluntary and responding to genealogical requests is not a normal part of the job description. Include as much information about your Masonic ancestor as possible, but be specific when writing your request; do not include extraneous information; be patient as any response may not be prompt. If the local lodge has no information (or no longer is in existence), your next step would be to write the secretary of the Grand Lodge for the corresponding state. Following the Avery Smith information, The Grand Lodge of Oregon site provided both a mailing address and an email address. As there are Masonic lodges on six out of the seven continents of the world (North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia), Masonic Lodge Locations is essential for identifying a lodge to which your ancestor may have belonged. In addition, the Grand Lodge of Scotland provides access to other world-wide Grand Lodges. (If your research is in California or Arkansas, please note that the Grand Masonic Lodge of California lost all of its early records in the San Francisco fire (1906), and the Grand Masonic Lodge of Arkansas lost all of its early records due to a fire in 1918.)

There are many online sites for Masonic membership information, and you will want to try various searches based on geographic location. Other sites provide additional Masonic research opportunities. Some of the more interesting sites that I discovered include:

  • The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) is in the process of adding entries into its database “Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts Membership 1733-1990.” In March 2011 it announced that it had added surnames beginning A-L. Once completed, this database will contain digital images of 348,678 membership cards for those Masons who “died, dropped, or demitted before 1990.” It is also important to note that the Grand Lodge in Massachusetts, the oldest Masonic lodge in the United States (1733) and the third oldest in the world, had jurisdiction over lodges not only in Massachusetts, but also in “Panama, Chile, the People’s Republic of China (meeting in Tokyo, Japan), and Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba.” This  database contains information from all of these jurisdictions. Records include date of birth, place of birth, occupation and residency information. Searching in this database, I identified Fred Alden Abbe, a merchant in Springfield, Massachusetts. Fred was born in Springfield on 5 October 1879, and belonged to Esoterie Lodge in which he was initiated on 15 February 1923, passed on 16 March 1923, and raised on 18 April 1923. He died 13 February 1972.
  • The National Park Service, Keweenaw National Historical Park, Calumet, Michigan, holds the records of Free & Accepted Masons Calumet Lodge, No. 271 (1907-1986), the Knights Templar Montrose Commandery (1900-1917), and the Royal Arch Masons Calumet Chapter, No. 153. All three of these organizations met in the Union Building in Calumet and some of their records were salvaged by the building’s owner, Ray Ostermyer, and purchased by the Park Service in 2002. In April 2004, some additional records were saved from an incinerator by a waste management employee who recognized their historical significance, and the following month the Park Service salvaged further records from the third floor of the Union Building. An online finding aid, Free & Accepted Masons Records 1900-1986, describing the scope and organization of these records is available, and there is no access restriction to their use. Materials in this collection include booklets, financial documents, membership information and materials pertaining to administrative and ceremonial aspects of the three organizations.
  • Special Collections at the University of Virginia Library in Charlottesville, Virginia, includes the Masonic Membership Record Book from Suffolk County, Virginia, 1838-1853. As there is not a Suffolk County in Virginia, it may be assumed that the title location is the town of Suffolk (later independent city), which is surrounded by Nansemond County. Cataloging notes for this item indicate that the single volume includes membership financial records for Astread Lodge No. 85 in Suffolk, Virginia, specifically initiation fees, passing (degree) fees and dues, as well as the death, withdrawal or removal of members. Interestingly, the record also notes that the volume was used by a Union Commissary Sergeant, Charles P. Bailey, of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, to record issuance of subsistence stores and receipt of foodstuffs from the Sanitary Commission in 1864/65. This membership book is of particular importance due to the destruction (various causes) of most of the pre-Civil War records of Suffolk and surrounding Nansemond County.
  • The Centre for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism is an online site provided by the University of Sheffield in England. It provides a discussion of the genealogical records of English Masonic lodges held at the library and museum, located on the first floor of Freemason’s Hall, 60 Great Queen Street, London. Staff members will undertake research for interested individuals at no cost if the name or number of the lodge is known. Otherwise, a £30 payment is required. The minimum information necessary for a search is a man’s name and an indication of when he lived. Many records are arranged by place, so knowledge of residence is importance. Records in the library collection include membership records (annual lists of membership in individual lodges); records of the three senior officers (Worshipful Master, Senior Warden, Junior Warden); minute books; certificates and patents of appointments; and correspondence. One site link leads to John Lane’s Masonic Records 1717-1894: Being a List of All the Lodges at Home and Abroad Warranted by the Four Grand Lodges and the United Grand Lodge of England, with their Dates of Constitution, Places of Meeting, Alterations of Numbering, &c., &c. This publication is searchable by lodge and provides interesting historical information. For example, if your ancestor lived in London and belonged to the Lodge of Antiquity, you would learn that the lodge met at the Goose and Gridiron in St. Paul’s Churchyard in 1717, but met in six other pubs or taverns before settling in Freemason’s Hall at Great Queen Street in 1865. Named as the Lodge of Antiquity in 1770, it had previously been known as The Wet Indian and American Lodge (1761) and a Masters’ Lodge in from 1760 to 1769. It united with Harodim Lodge in 1794. By knowing where the lodge met in which year, you can trace your ancestor’s meetings in mid-eighteenth century London taverns.

Other world-wide Masonic libraries, including the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, may be identified on the Masonic Lodge Info web site.

In you are interested in more information on Freemasonry, you will want to check the various links at Masonic Resources on the Internet including the Masonic Dictionary.

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