Freemasonry Moves West with America
Freemasonry Moves West with America

Freemasonry Moves West with America

British military lodges brought formal Freemasonry to America with the arrival of Lord Jeffrey Amherst in 1758. He engaged the French in Montreal and won. He wintered in New York while preparing for the campaign of 1759. By 1760 all of Canada was under British control. The 7-year war, known in America as the French and Indian War, with Chief Pontiac heading up the opposition was organizing and would also spread Freemasonry across the frontier of America as the British engaged their enemies further into the American frontier. American Freemasonry benefitted immensely from these militia being garrisoned in winter with little battlefield duties freeing their time for other activities.

John Skene is thought to be the first English Mason to see American land. He arrived in 1682 with family and friends and landed in New Jersey, where he became the deputy colonial governor of West Jersey.

The first Freemason born in America, Andrew Belcher was the son of a Mason Jonathan Belcher who had been the governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire and was made a Mason in 1704. His son Andrew joined the Craft in 1733.

When nonmilitary Masonic lodges were established in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania they were not chartered by the Grand Lodge of England and thus were considered “irregular”. The pattern of gathering and conferring degrees without always obtaining a charter or warrant continued sporadically as America spread westward over the next 200 years. Usually, the issue involved the slow communication for obtaining a warrant, often a year or more was involved. 

America also found the source of the warrant presented conflicts. British Masonry was dominant but not exclusive. A dispensation dated November 30th, 1752 from Sholto Charles Douglas, Lord Aberdour, who was Grand Master in Scotland was received in America. The Boston petitioners constituted a regular lodge under the title of “St. Andrews Lodge, No. 82”. This was for the province of Massachusetts Bay. Dr. Joseph Warren was chosen as the first master. Paul Revere and John Hancock were also members. They operated under the Grand Lodge of Scotland, not Britain.

To further entangle the national source of the fraternal ties many British masons in militia groups went on to the higher degrees of the York Rite, which was chartered by the Grand Lodge of Ireland. The 32 degrees and other recognitions of Masonic achievement were frequently conferred during the winter by traveling lodges, as they were to be later known. Freemasonry set an example for the war and for the country as a whole to emulate. In a paper presented 250-odd years later “Masonic Education and Service for the Grand Lodge of Texas,” The Masonic scholar James Davis Carter observes, “The role of Freemasonry and individual Masons prior to and through the American Revolution was that of the destruction of the traditional social and political order based on an authoritarian philosophy and characterized by inequality and privilege.

American Freemasons carried the ideals of equality and tolerance across the country as the westward expansion brought new territory under the dominance of the United States. The Scottish Rite’s earliest recording in America is on December 22, 1753, at Washington’s Lodge in Fredericksburg. The 33rd degree was established by May 31, 1801.

English Freemasonry also had to spread south in the 13 colonies. General James Edward Oglethorpe arrived on the west bank of the Savannah River on February 12, 1733. This was the start of the province of Georgia and the southern boundary of the colonies for many years. On February 21, 1734, a lodge was opened in Savannah, but notably without a “warrant”. Noble Jones, a friend of Oglethorpe’s was initiated as the first Freemason in Georgia. On December 2, 1735, the lodge was granted a warrant.

In his book, The Freemasons in America, H. Paul Jeffers writes that “It has been said that in every pioneer settlement of the west first came the church, then a school, then a Masonic lodge”. By 1892, there were fifty Grand Lodges in the United States, including one in Indian Territory, which later became the Grand Lodge of Oklahoma.

Birds of a feather are said to flock together. This was certainly true with George Washington in setting up his command, with many brothers in his administration as well. It was true of Mason’s Lewis and Clark too. After their “Corps of Discovery” was completed they each served as governor of the territory they’d explored and appointed a secretary, sheriff, and four judges, all of who were Freemasons.

Other Freemasons who contributed to the geographical knowledge were Kit Carson and Zebulon Pike, who had the top of a mountain in Colorado named for him and became famous. He had a brother, Albert who would later become very notable in the Scottish Rite and also a famous Confederate General.