High Society

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

If you caught the genealogy bug because you thought you descended from a Revolutionary War patriot or a Mayflower passenger, you’re not alone. Thousands of Americans attempt to trace their lineage back to war veterans and founding fathers. But if you can prove direct descent from the right ancestor, a lineage society might want you as a member.

For many researchers, belonging to a lineage society is an honor in itself. Membership has plenty more privileges, though: For example, it connects you with family historians who have similar research interests, and lets you access the organization’s library and other resources. To qualify for most lineage societies, you’ll need to trace your direct line back to an ancestor who meets a specific criterion for membership. Depending on the society, that measure might be serving in the Revolutionary War, signing the Declaration of Independence, fighting for the Confederacy, serving with Washington at Valley Forge or running a hostelry before July 4,1776.

Just “thinking” you qualify for membership doesn’t count, though — regardless of the generations of family stories about your Pilgrim ancestor or Great-great-grandpa Zeke’s purported heroism at Shiloh. In order to join a lineage society, you’ll need to thoroughly document your lineage back to the qualifying forebear. Although the required documentation varies by society, you can expect to spend considerable time on your application. Generally, societies require proof of all places, dates and relationships. Acceptable sources for proving descent are vital, census and probate records; wills; family Bibles; and letters.

If the application process seems overwhelming, you have several options for assistance. Local chapters of national organizations often have a membership person who helps applicants with paperwork and appropriate documentation. It’s also possible that another descendant of your ancestor already joined the society. If this is so, you can piggyback on her research to the point where your family lines split. For example, for $5, the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) <> will send you a copy of the application papers of active, deceased, resigned or dropped DAR members.

And you can always hire a professional genealogist who specializes in lineage work. Contact the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) <> to locate a Certified Lineage Specialist (CLS).

So what organizations can you join? Lineage societies fall into several categories, but the most common are war societies, Old World societies, regional societies and those associated with colonization or early settlement. In addition, a few religious and ethnic organizations fall into this category. Membership qualifications vary by group: Some are gender-specific, some require stringent documentation and others are by invitation only. Here’s a look at what you can shoot for, depending on who’s in your family tree.

War societies

War-related lineage societies probably outnumber all the other types. To qualify for membership, you must descend from someone who served in a specific war, either as a soldier or in some other accepted category. The DAR, for instance, will allow you to join if you have a “patriot” ancestor, but that’s not limited to members of the military: The DAR also counts clergy who gave patriotic sermons, civilians who offered material aid, signers of the Declaration of Independence or those who participated in the Boston Tea Party.

Both the DAR and its counterpart for men, National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) <>, have membership-application and worksheet tips on their Web sites. Both are national organizations with local chapters. The societies encourage applicants to contact local chapters for membership information and help in the application process. (See the August 2003 Family Tree Magazine for a step-by-step guide to tracing Revolutionary War ancestors.)

The General Society of the War of 1812 <> limits membership to males who can prove descent from any participant in the War of 1812. Qualifying participants include those in the Army, Navy and Marines, as well as privateers and members of the militia. The society’s Web site explains how to find War of 1812 military records and provides links to other Web sites with soldier rosters.

Women with War of 1812 ancestors can join the National Society of the United States Daughters of 1812 <>. To join, you must have an ancestor who rendered civil or military service any time from 1784 to 1815 — including anyone who participated in the Lewis and Clark expedition. (For more on the Lewis and Clark journey and bicentennial celebrations, see the March 2003 America’s Scrapbook, a special issue of Family Tree Magazine.)

What’s the oldest American war society? The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts <>, founded in 1637 and chartered by Gov. John Winthrop in 1638. To qualify for membership, your ancestors must have belonged to the organization between 1637 and 1737.

The lineage society with the strangest requirements might be the Hereditary Order of the Descendants of the Loyalists and Patriots of the American Revolution: To join, you must descend from a loyalist and a patriot.

Old world societies

Think Queen Elizabeth II is your long-lost cousin? Then you might try for membership in one of the Old World societies. These organizations require members to trace their lineage back to nobility or royalty. (If you’re worried about descent out of wedlock, don’t: There’s even a society for the illegitimate sons and daughters of the kings of Britain.)

One of the best-known — and most exclusive — Old World societies is the Order of the Crown of Charlemagne in the United States of America <>. Founded in 1939, the society is limited to people who can prove lineal descent from the emperor Charlemagne. Two current members must propose potential members, and even after approval, membership is by invitation.

If you’re lucky enough to trace your heritage back to the 13th century, you may qualify for the National Society Magna Charta Dames and Barons <>. These folks descend from the 25 sureties (people directly involved) for the signing of the Magna Charta in 1215. Other qualifying ancestors are knights, barons, prelates or “other influential people” present on the field of Runnemede June 1215 on behalf of the charter. You’ll find a two-part pedigree form on the Web site: Part I will trace the line from you to your immigrant ancestor, and Part II from the immigrant to the qualifying ancestor. You’ll need to contact the society for more information, as membership is by invitation only.

Colonial societies

One of the best-known lineage societies in America was created by descendants of the Pilgrims, who sailed in 1620 on the Mayflower. Are you one of the tens of millions who descended from this small band? If so, print out a preliminary review form from the General Society of Mayflower Descendants Web site <> and send it to the appropriate state society (links are on the site). After review, you’ll be contacted about moving forward with a formal application.

Although the General Society of Mayflower Descendants is probably the best-known — and possibly the most sought-after — it’s only one of several lineage societies that sprang up to celebrate the colonization of America. No Pilgrims in your past? You could try to top Mayflower heritage by proving a link to the early settlers of Jamestown, Va., which predates the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock, after all. Membership in the Jamestowne Society <> is only by invitation, but you can contact one of the “companies” listed on the Web site for assistance in applying. The Web site also has a list of members’ qualifying ancestors. You can order copies of members’ application papers for $15.

Another such Colonial association, The Society of The Ark and The Dove <>, was formed in 1910 for descendants of Sir George Calvert (the first Lord Baltimore) or the settlers who traveled to Maryland with him aboard The Ark and The Dove, way back in March 1634.

In general, the Colonial societies require members to trace their lineage to someone who lived in one of the Colonies before a specified date. For example, the National Society Colonial Dames of the XVII Century <> requires you to have an ancestor in the Colonies before 1701. Other Colonial societies connect descendants of people in specific professions, such as Colonial physicians, governors, clergy or tavern keepers.

Early-settler societies

These organizations provide membership to those who can trace an ancestor to a specific place before a specific date. Although a few of these societies, such as the National Society of New England Women <>, cover an entire region, most are state-specific. In general, these societies require that you have an ancestor who lived in the area before statehood — or, in the case of the National Society of New England Women, before the signing of the US Constitution. To join the Sons and Daughters of Oregon Pioneers <>, for example, you must have an ancestor who lived in Oregon or Washington Territory prior to Oregon statehood, Feb. 14,1859.

The oldest lineage organization west of the Mississippi is The Society of California Pioneers <>, which was founded by people who went to California before the Gold Rush. If your family settled in the Golden State before Jan. 1, 1850, you qualify for membership.

Religious & ethnic societies

Only a handful of religion-based lineage societies exist, and most are related to Huguenot ancestry — The Huguenot Society of America <www.huguenotsocietyofamerica. org>, The National Huguenot Society <> and the Huguenot Society of South Carolina <>.

To join an ethnic lineage society, you must descend from a specific cultural group. In some cases, you’ll need to trace your lineage back to a set time period. Los Californianos, for example, requires not only that you have Hispanic ancestry but also that your ancestor arrived in Alta California (a term describing the modern-day area of the US state) before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Feb. 2, 1848. In general, though, these groups’ membership qualifications and proof of lineage are far less stringent than other types of societies’.

Benefits of belonging

Other than ancestral pride, what are the perks of joining a lineage society? Well, some, such as the Order of the Crown of Charlemagne, will get you an invitation to a swank black-tie dinner in Washington, DC, and the chance to wear a piece of impressive members-only jewelry. Other societies, such as the DAR, involve members in community outreach programs and educational projects.

But you’ll also discover benefits for your ongoing family tree research. Most large societies publish magazines, while smaller organizations keep members informed via newsletters or Web-site announcements. A few organizations, including the DAR, maintain their own libraries, which can help you take the next steps in your family history quest. Many have monthly meetings or, at least, an annual event. The United Daughters of the Confederacy <> hosts an annual convention with tours to historic battlefields, cemeteries and homes. Members of The Society of Indiana Pioneers <> are treated to a spring pilgrimage to historic sites.

For genealogists, though, the most valuable benefit of applying for lineage-society membership may be the family history and documentation you uncover along the way. Even if you ultimately can’t prove your pedigree extends to the Mayflower or some Revolutionary War battlefield, you’re bound to learn more about other ancestors who are just as noble and fascinating — because, after all, they’re yours.

From the October 2003 Family Tree Magazine