Was Your Ancestor a Joiner? by Mary Penner

Vocabulary quiz–choose the correct definition for the word “joiner.”

a. A misnomer for a woodworking tool properly spelled and pronounced “jointer.”
b. An occupation related to woodworking or carpentry.
c. A person who habitually joins clubs and organizations.
d. All of the above.

The correct answer is “d.” Family historians will occasionally encounter an ancestor whose occupation was listed as a “joiner” on a census record. In this case, it’s safe to assume that he was a professional carpenter rather than a professional club member.
However, your research would be more productive possibly if he spent his time at club meetings rather than hammering nails. You see, ancestors who joined clubs left paper trails, which are far better for your research than sawdust trails.

What Kind of Clubs?
Clubs, organizations, and secret (and not so secret) societies have been around ever since people began to notice that they had things in common. Could there have been a cavemen artist’s guild? Fortunately, you won’t need to trace your ancestors back that far before you find your own family joiner. There was no shortage of clubs your ancestors could to belong to.

Clubs related to occupations were popular. There were clubs for farmers, railroad men, and merchants. There were religious and military clubs, fraternal and political clubs, and ethnic and hobby clubs. And clubs that were local, statewide, and international.

What Can I Find in Club Records?
Club records can provide many important clues about your ancestors. Some clubs, such as the Paradise Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in Santa Fe, had written membership applications. For example, William D. Sapp applied for membership on 16 September 1852. His application noted that he was twenty-seven years old, a Santa Fe resident, and a clerk.

Clubs also were meticulous about money. You may find account books that list dues paid. Each member of the Odd Fellows in Santa Fe had a separate page in the account book listing when he paid his dues and how much he paid.

Meeting minutes can also be helpful. They will often list all the members present, and you can discover if your ancestor had leadership skills by serving as a club officer. Minutes and correspondence give you an idea about club events and objectives.

Members of organizations liked to see their names in print, so they often produced written histories of their clubs. For example, the history of the Octoraro Farmers Club in Pennsylvania includes biographies and photos of their founding members.

An Indianapolis mason produced a history of his club in 1895. The history traces the beginnings of the club back to the early 1820s, and it includes biographies of the earliest members as well as a master list of the members at the time of publication.

Women frequently jumped on the club joiner bandwagon as well, often providing welcome references to our elusive female ancestors. The minute book of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Hibernians of Calumet, Michigan, for example, has names of women members scattered throughout the book.

So, how do you know if your ancestor was a joiner? Obituaries often mentioned club memberships. Sometimes you’ll find a club symbol carved onto tombstones.

Examine what you already know about your ancestors’ lives and list the possible types of clubs they may have joined. Were there any veterans? Several of my Civil War ancestors joined the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) and those records have produced lucrative clues. Look at their religion and occupation; examine their education. Could they have joined an alumni group?

If you don’t have specific clues that your ancestor was a joiner, try to locate the clubs operating in his or her area. County and town histories will often mention clubs, and you can find meeting notices in local newspapers.

How do you track down the club records? If the club is still in existence, they may have old records in their possession. Contact the club to see if their old files can be researched. Other club records have found their way to local and state historical societies, archives, and libraries. Don’t forget to search local college and university manuscript collections as well.

Finding your ancestral joiners puts them in a certain place at a certain time, adds depth to their lives, and can often lead to valuable genealogical clues.

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Genealogist Mary Penner writes “Lineage Lessons,” a weekly genealogy column, for the Albuquerque Tribune. She can be reached through her website.

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5 thoughts on “Was Your Ancestor a Joiner? by Mary Penner

  1. I am in the midst right now of tracking down info on relatives who were in dental societies, Casting Club, Calumet Club, Masons, Shriners, etc.
    I found this article very interesting and helpful.


  2. My gr grandfather was a member of the GAR. I have found the name of the chapter he belonged to in Missouri. I have a souvenir pin from the GAR 28th National Encampment, Sept 1894 in Pittsburg that belonged to him. How can I find out if he actually attended that encampment or any other information relating to his membership?

  3. I want to add a comment here. Four or five years ago I contacted the Woodmen of the Word organization to inquire about my grandfather, George W. Bounds, who had been a member and had one of those tree trunk headstones at his gravesite. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the information I was asking for was private and not available. I was so disappointed. Maybe it was because of the nature of my inquiry or maybe this organization is just stingy with information – I don’t know. My grandfather died in 1905; I certainly could no see where providing information on him would hurt anyone at this point. But, after being sorely rejected, I never tried again. C. C. Winfrey, Corpus Christi, Texas

  4. My father was a joiner! In the Ellis Island manifest, he was so described. I had to look it up, because I had never heard this word for his occupation. He always called himself a fine cabinetmaker – OR – during the depression when he would take any woodworking job, a carpenter. He was born in Italy in 1897 and arrived on Ellis Island in 1920. He had also lived for a time in Argentina, before returning to Italy to fight in WWI.

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