The first fraternal secret society original to America, the Improved Order of Red Men traces its roots back to the Sons of Liberty, a political secret society founded in Boston before the American Revolution. After the Revolution, many Sons of Liberty chapters renamed themselves the Society of St Tammany or Tamina, a name that had been taken by the Annapolis chapter as early as 1773. As the Society of St Tammany became increasingly political, members interested more in social activities than in politics founded a new organization, the Society of Red Men, which began at Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania in 1816. Like most fraternal orders of the time, the Society met in taverns and included plenty of drinking among its activities; in 1834 members who wanted to move away from this model toward fraternal and charitable work broke away from the Society of Red Men to found their own organization, the Improved Order of Red Men.
The Red Men reflected the intense ambivalence many Americans felt toward the native peoples they had displaced on the North American land. Its rituals and symbolism were based on white ideas of Native American life and spirituality, but until 1974 Native Americans themselves (along with members of all other non-white ethnic groups) were barred from membership. The order cultivated a patriotism that, as so often in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, blended too easily with racism and xenophobia, but it also took a stand against the Ku Klux Klan in 1922, at a time when many other fraternal secret societies were covertly or openly siding with the Klan.
The Improved Order had a slow start, and by 1850 still counted only 45 tribes (local lodges) and just over 3000 members. That same year saw a schism among the Red Men that gave rise to a competing organization, the Independent Order of Red Men, which remained in existence until the 1890s. During the second half of the nineteenth century, though, new degree rituals and the expanding popularity of fraternal orders enabled the Improved Order of Red Men to grow steadily. It established a ladies auxiliary, the Daughters of Pocahontas, in 1887, and a burlesque lodge, the National Haymakers Association, in 1878.
The order reached a peak membership of more than half a million in 1920. From this high-water mark the order declined steadily, and survives today in fewer than half of the states in the US. Like most American fraternal orders, it counts several presidents among its members – Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon were all Red Men – but what limited political influence it once had is now long in the past.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006