While at first it may not be obvious why one would seek out the records of a lineage society in order to trace colonial immigrant origins, several reasons for doing so will be pointed out in this lesson. A lineage society (sometimes called an hereditary society) is an organization whose membership is limited to persons who can prove lineal descent from a qualifying ancestor. There are hundreds of lineage societies in North America, each celebrating a different group of historical individuals, such as those who fought in the American Revolutionary War, or those who arrived on the Mayflower. Indeed, many different historical groups are represented today by descendants who belong to a specific lineage society.
By far the most well-known and popular of all the lineage societies is the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). For the first hundred years of American genealogy (about 1850 to 1950), lineage societies, such as the DAR, were at the forefront in developing this new interest called genealogy. They continue today to be an important aspect of family history. Their devotion to accurate, well-documented lineages is an example to all family historians.
Going Beyond the DAR
Because membership in lineage societies requires documented descent from a specific individual whose presence or actions qualifies his descendants for membership, there is significant genealogical information in the files of lineage societies. Of course, many lineage societies, including most of the largest, do not deal with immigrants, and are therefore outside the scope of the current discussion. This includes the DAR, and all other societies whose membership depends on an ancestor who served in a war, or who simply lived in the colonies prior to a certain date. However, the records of this group could help speed up your research between the present time and that of the Revolutionary War.
In addition, there are several lineage societies whose focus is the immigrant ancestor, or a notable ancestor in the old country, such as a King or Queen. In these cases, the files of that society will be full of information about immigrants, and often their origin.
Many lineage societies publish books of interest to their members, and of interest to other researchers. The most common of these are "lineage" books which publish the lineages of their members back to the qualifying ancestor. These books are found in most major genealogical libraries and can help you determine if a society might have information about a possible ancestor. Where the society focuses on the royal ancestry of an individual, a lineage book should provide that ancestry, including the origin in the old country (usually England).
The best publication for royal and noble lineages is David Faris, Plantagenet Ancestry of Seventeenth-Century Colonists (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1996). This replaces two old standards in this field, Sheppard's Ancestral Roots of Certain American Colonists and Wurt's Magna Carta Sureties. Be aware, however, that acceptance of any specific royal line is constantly changing as new sources, interpretations and understandings come to light.
Immigrant and Early Settler Societies
Dozens of societies have been established focusing on specific immigrant groups, or early settlers of some locality. While these societies have an interest in immigrants, they do not always know where any particular immigrant came from in the old country. Their objectives do not include establishing the immigrant or settler's ancestry, only their descent to current persons.
Also note that being an early settler does not automatically mean that a person was an immigrant. For example, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas requires descent only from a citizen who established residency in Texas before its annexation to the United States in 1846. Obviously, many Texas citizens at that date had not been born overseas.
On the other hand, societies for descendants of settlers who founded a New England town during the early 1600s almost automatically should be considered immigrants, even if they lived elsewhere in the colonies for a few years before the founding. An example is the "Society of the Descendants of the Founders of Hartford (Connecticut)" which requires the ancestor be living in Hartford by early 1640.
Another society for early settlers is the "Order of Descendants of Ancient Planters" . The term "Ancient Planter" is applied to those persons who arrived in Virginia before 1616, remained for a period of three years, paid their passage, and survived the massacre of 1622. Their web site, includes a list of about 150 known, qualifying planters.
The most well-known of lineage societies for immigrants is the "General Society, Mayflower Descendants" . This society has published a journal for many years, as well as a series of books defining the known descendants of the Mayflower passengers. Among their publications one can find the origins of those passengers, if it has been determined.
The situation with the Mayflower immigrants is an interesting case study in locating the origins of colonial immigrants. According to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, of the 104 passengers on that ship, 26 men (and their wives) left issue from whom one can trace descent today. Interestingly, with all the research undertaken over the years, the English origins are known for only 12 of those 26 passengers (and suspected for 3 more). This suggests that, no matter how hard you research, or how good you are, you might only find the origins for about half of your colonial immigrants.
Other societies exist for descendants of persons who arrived on a specific ship. Two significant ones include "The Welcome Society of Pennsylvania" for those who arrived on the Welcome in 1682, or other ships up to the end of 1682, and "The Society of the Ark and the Dove" for those arriving on those ships to Maryland in 1634.
If your colonial ancestor arrived in the British colonies by 1657, you should be interested in "The Order of the Founders and Patriots of America" . They are interested in those early (pre-1657) founders who established families in America, among whose descendants, of the same surname line, were persons who fought for American independence in the Revolutionary War. The society has created one of the most useful tools for research into these early colonial families in Meredith B. Colket's book, Founders of Early American Families (Oberlin, Ohio: The Society, 1975). This book lists some 3,500 immigrant male heads of families who appear to have male descendants today. The listing describes the immigrant, including his origin (where known) as well as identifying any published sources dealing with these immigrants.
European Ancestry Societies
Some lineage societies focus on ancestors who were notable long before the American colonies were established. Therefore, descendants who wish to join need to trace their ancestry back to the immigrant (called the "gateway" ancestor), and then trace that immigrant's ancestry back to the qualifying ancestor in the old country. Usually the qualifying ancestor was part of British royalty or nobility.
One of the most popular such societies is the "Order of the Crown of Charlemagne in the United States of America" which requires documented descent from that early emperor. This means tracing your ancestry back more than 1,000 years. While it may be difficult for you to conceive of doing that, your interest right now is whether your immigrant ancestor is one of the "gateway" ancestors whose known ancestry may include Charlemagne. Books such as that by Faris, cited above, assist with this task.
Other target ancestral groups, for which there are such lineage societies, include royal descent (Order of the Crown in America), the Barons of the Magna Charta in 1215 (Baronial Order of Magna Charta), and crusaders (Military Order of the Crusades). Perhaps the most interesting is the "Descendants of the Illegitimate Sons and Daughters of the Kings of Britain" whose membership requirements are obvious from the title. However, the standards of proof for this society are among the most strict.
Nationality or Ethnic Lineage Societies
Many societies exist that celebrate and research the ethnic background of the many diverse cultures that have made America their home. However, a small number of such societies, and actually the oldest such societies in America, are true lineage societies. Membership is limited to those persons who can prove descent from an early settler of a specific ethnic group.
Many of these groups began in the colonial era as a way to assist newly arrived countrymen. "The Saint Andrew's Society" was for men of Scottish birth while "The Saint George's Society" focused on English birth. Colonial societies were also founded for Welsh and Irish descendants. Some of these have evolved into primarily charity organizations, but still maintain their lineage requirements.
One society with a more genealogical orientation is "The Dutch Settlers Society of Albany" which required descent from a Dutch settler of the Albany area prior to 1665. Their yearbook identifies all the qualifying ancestors from whom members have joined.
Most lineage societies are small organizations run by volunteers. Often they do not have a web site, and the address may change with the officers. However, they are usually quite willing to help you, as they presume you might be interested in membership. Some societies are open by invitation only. Therefore, it pays to do some research about the society before inquiring.
The best, and most accessible overview of all lineage societies (not just those dealing with immigrants), is Chapter 20 in The Source (Salt Lake City, Ancestry, 1997), titled "Tracking Through Hereditary and Lineage Organizations." This chapter, by Grahame T. "Chips" Smallwood, the dean of American lineage societies, provides capsule overviews of the major societies, including a brief note about their qualifications for membership. It also lists key publications related to each society.
For a more comprehensive listing, with more information about each society, consult the Hereditary Society Blue Book by Robert Davenport (published annually). The web site for this publication also lists all the societies in that directory, with links to their home pages, if they exist. Note that only about 10 to 20 of lineage societies currently have a presence on the World Wide Web.
- With the Blue Book's web site log on and review the names of the various lineage societies.
- Choose one that might include your early immigrant. If there is an Internet link, investigate the society and learn about the qualifications. Query the society about their records, and a list of qualifying ancestors.
- If you do find an ancestor who qualifies you for membership in one or more lineage societies, consider joining that society. It is an excellent way to preserve that line of your ancestry, and provide support to struggling organizations that have done so much (and continue to do so) in preserving the records we all need.