The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (also known as the The Elks or the BPOE) is a charitable American fraternal order with a rich history dating back to 1868.
In 1867 a brotherhood of performers established a social club in New York known as the Jolly Corks.
Shortly before Christmas that year a member of the group passed away, leaving his family destitute.
At that point in time, the members of the Jolly Corks decided to expand the organization beyond mere fellowship to embrace charity (along with justice, brotherly love, and fidelity).
On February 16th, 1868 with a vote of 8 (Elk) to 7 (Buffalo), the BPOE was officially founded.
The Elks were founded in large part by Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian.
Many of the traditions and rituals associated with The Elks are similar to those found in other fraternal orders.
However, Vivan was a member of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes in England (also known as the RAOB or The Buffs) prior to emigrating to New York City in 1867.
There are some direct similarities between the two groups in regards to charter and ritual.
The Elks and The Buffs were both founded by performers.
The Elks were founded in 1868, whereas The Buffs were founded in 1822.
They both provide aid to their members, their families, dependents of former members, and various charitable organizations.
The principles of Elkdom are Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love, and Fidelity.
The Buffs maxim is one of Justice, Truth, and Philanthropy.
Why the elk?
There is some indication that members of the Jolly Corks were adverse to using the buffalo – in part because it had been claimed by the RAOB.
They looked for a species native to North America and (reportedly) considered many animals from bears to beavers before settling on the majestic elk.
Their decision was reinforced after studying books on natural history at the Cooper Institute.
The historical texts referred to the elk as having “fleetness of foot, combined with timidity at wrong-doing”.
Furthermore, the texts indicated the elk would “avoid all combat except in fighting for the female and defense of the young, the helpless and the weak”.
It seemed to be a perfect fit for the fledgling order.
Both are members of the deer family (Cervidae).
In British English the elk (or European Elk) commonly refers to what most Americans would consider to be a moose.
You may find some Elk memorabilia tagged with the slogan Cervus Alces.
That could be due to historical changes in taxonomy – or perhaps it’s something of a misnomer between the two elk classifications.
The Elks “Eleven O’Clock Toast” is widely believed to have originated with a similar toast performed by The Buffs known as the “Absent Brethren Hymn”.
That historical curfew, however, began at eight o’clock – but in later centuries moved on to nine and ten at night.
Other sources attribute the hour to the historical ending time of early Elks meetings.
Whatever the true origin might be – the Eleventh Hour has always had a significant historical and cultural significance.
The fraternal similarities between the BPOE and the RAOB should not suggest that the two groups are interchangeable or they are related to one another.
They are not.
It does, however, shed some light on the origins of The Elks, as the two orders can certainly be considered to be contemporary.
Both organizations have details in common, however, they both delve into traditions that are far older than both groups combined.
The Elks have a tiered hierarchy based on the national, state, and local levels.
The Grand Lodge is the head of the national Order.
The “State Associations” preside over their respective states.
The “Subordinate Lodges” are the local associations to which all members belong.
That is not to say that local members are not associated with the “State Associations” and the “Grand Lodge” – they are.
For further reading you may peruse An Authentic History of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks by Charles Edward Ellis or All About the Order of Elks by J. Herbert Klein.
President Regan addresses the 1988 Elks National Convention.