Once Upon a Wigwam: Powwowing With a President

On this date in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt was made an honorary member of the Improved Order of Red Men.

Never heard of the IORM?

The IORM was a fraternal lodge at a time in American history when fraternal lodges were a pervasive social force. One scholar estimated that “every fifth man belonged to at least one of the nation’s seventy thousand fraternal lodges.”

In 1890 the Fort Worth Gazette estimated that Fort Worth had four thousand fraternal lodge members. The population of Fort Worth in 1890 was twenty-four thousand, so by that estimate, one man in six belonged to a lodge.

In 1899 the Fort Worth Register regularly published a lodge directory. We have heard of the Masons and Shriners, of the Odd Fellows and Woodmen of the World. But a century ago knighthood was in flower: There were Knights of Pythias, Knights of Honor, Knights of Columbus, Knights of Maccabee, Catholic Knights of America, Knights of Dixie.

And there were animals: Bovinians and Owls and Elks, oh my.

In 1901 the Red Men claimed six thousand members in Texas, a half million nationally by 1935. Fort Worth’s first Red Men lodge had formed by 1897.

Among the order’s tenets were promotion of patriotism, performance of public service, and perpetuation of the traditions of a “once-vanishing race.” Indeed, the order traced its origins to 1765 and the Sons of Liberty, a colonial secret order whose members dressed as Native Americans when they took part in the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The Sons and other orders merged into the Society of Red Men in 1813. In 1834 that order changed its name to “Improved Order of Red Men.”

This membership certificate of 1889 (from Wikipedia) is decorated with Native American scenes. The Red Men wore Native American regalia in their induction rituals. Their lodge lingo also was Native American. For example, a lodge was a “tribe,” a lodge’s city was its “hunting ground,” a lodge hall was the “wigwam,” leadership titles included “incohonee,” “sachem,” and “sagamore,” ranks were “hunter,” “warrior,” and “chief.” Time was reckoned in “moons” and “suns.” Meetings were “powwows” and “council fires.” Visitors were “palefaces.” The women’s auxiliary was the Degree of Pocahontas.

In addition to performing public service, like most fraternal orders, the Improved Order of Red Men provided members with social and business networking in the days before LinkedIn. But also, more than most fraternal groups, surely the Red Men appealed to every man’s inner boy.

To put a face on the local IORM membership, this 1902 Mail-Telegram article lists William M. Rea as prophet of the Quanah Parker tribe.

Rea served several terms as chief of police and county sheriff. He had been in law enforcement in Fort Worth since the late 1870s, first serving as a patrolman under City Marshal Timothy Isaiah “Longhaired Jim” Courtright.

Rea is buried in Oakwood Cemetery. Notice that he was also a Mason. Multiple membership in fraternal orders was common.

Over the last century membership in the IORM—like membership in many fraternal orders—declined. But Fort Worth still has three tribes. The national headquarters—and museum—is in Waco. The national charity project is Alzheimer’s research.

This entry was posted in Life in the Past Lane. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>