Group Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Wouldn’t you love to find a photo of Grandpa decked out in full fraternal regalia? If you know your ancestor belonged to a fraternal order but lack pictorial proof, try these tips to fill in the photographic blanks.

Take online opportunities. Type an organization’s full name into an online search engine and see what turns up. You might be surprised to discover the group still exists and maintains a Web site — which might display pictures. Also try the image-search features on popular search engines such as Google <> and AltaVista <>. Start with a general search to snag all relevant hits, then look for specific images.

Next, post a query on an online forum such as the Ancestry-RootsWeb message boards <>. This forum includes an Organizations and Societies category with boards for several fraternal societies.

Follow archival angles. Knowing where and when your ancestor lived, you can find pictures at local historical societies and museums. Write letters or e-mails to request information on pictures and documents concerning the fraternal order your ancestor belonged to. The Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States and Canada compiled by the American Association for State and Local History (Altamira Press) is a good place to look for addresses of institutions in a specific geographic area. You can find it in libraries and museums.

You might not locate an individual portrait of your ancestor this way, but there’s a good chance you’ll find a group photo: Membership societies posed for pictures commemorating special events, and those images often end up in public collections. See “Picturing the Past” in the October 2003 Family Tree Magazine for more than three dozen online historical-photo collections to search.

Include the ladies. Don’t limit your research to the men in your family. Fraternal societies usually sponsored groups for wives and daughters (such as the Order of the Eastern Star for Masons’ female relatives). Search for photos of women’s auxiliaries on the Web and in archives to discover new details about your female ancestors.

Put it all together. Finding images is just one step in tracing your family’s photo history. You’ll want to learn the story behind the photograph — just as reader Janet Meleny did with a group portrait of the Supreme Forest Woodmen Circle Court’s Cypress Grove No. 89, held by the Clarendon County (SC) Archives. You can apply identification strategies to your own pictures, and tell the full tale of your family’s fratermal-order ties.

Not sure if your forebears belonged to a fraternal society? Look for costume clues  in family photos. You’ll also find fraternal charms in the pages of old catalogs.

From the June 2004 Family Tree Magazine.