Over 24 million men registered for the World War I draft. The
sheer magnitude of this record group warrants attention from any
genealogist looking for a man born in the late nineteenth century.
These cards represent a vast amount of data and may include information
on men not listed in other records.
Sample images of the well-known individuals discussed in this
article can be viewed at www.rootdig.com/wwi/.
Microfilm of the World War I draft cards has been
available to genealogists for a number of years. Organized by the
various draft registration districts, the cards can be difficult or
easy to locate, depending where the relative lived and what is known
Genealogists with rural ancestors and those who knew precisely
where their urban ancestors lived have typically had less difficulty
finding their ancestor's registration card than other researchers. In
most non-urban areas registration district borders follow county lines
and the alphabetically organized cards are relatively easy to search.
Those with no idea where their relative lived, or who only
knew that their family member lived in an urban area, had significantly
more difficulty finding the desired card. New York had over 150
registration districts, Chicago had over 75, and most metropolitan
areas had dozens of registration districts, each with cards sorted
alphabetically for just that district.
In a previous column, "World War I Draft Cards," a draft
card search for a Chicago area resident was discussed. It was not
an easy search, but fortunately it was successful.
Now There is an Index
Ancestry.com continues to release draft cards and a
nation-wide World War I draft-card index on their site. As this index
nears completion, a significant amount of the difficulties in locating
the desired card has been removed. Users of this database, like any
database, should remember that in some cases the handwriting is
difficult to read and the ink may have faded. The cards were created
for wartime purposes, not for leaving a permanent record. A manual
search of the cards may still be necessary, but the index (and the
creative use of the index) can save the researcher a significant amount
of research time.
There were actually three separate registrations for the World
War I draft. Each had a slightly different registration card, but they
all asked similar questions. For purposes of discussion, we will
classify these cards by the number of questions on the front side of
the card. The back of each card asks questions about the soldier's
The Twelve-Question Card was used for the first
registration. Among the questions asked on this card were: name, age,
address, date of birth, citizenship status, employment, any dependents,
and any military service.
The Ten-Question Card was used for the second
registration. Among the questions asked on this card were name, age,
address, date and place of birth, father's place of birth, citizenship
status, name and address of employer, and name and address of nearest
The Twenty-Question Card was used for the third
registration. This card asked for name, age, address, date of birth,
citizenship status, race, name and address of employer, name and
address of nearest relative. While the question was not asked, in some
cases the precise relationship with the "nearest relative" will also be
- First Registration, 05 June 1917, was for men born
between 06 June 1886 and 05 June 1896. These men registered using the
- Second Registration, 05 June 1918, was for men born between 06 June
1896 and 05 June 1897. This registration registered men who had turned
twenty-one since 5 June 1918, had not previously registered, and were
not already in the military. These men registered using the
- Second Registration, Supplemental, 24 August 1918, was for men born
between 06 June 1897 and 24 August 1897. This registration was for men
who had turned twenty-one since 5 June 1918 or had not previously
registered and not already in the military. These men used the
- Third Registration, 15 Sept 1918, was for men born between 11 Sept
1872 and 12 Sept 1900. This registration required registration from men
not already registered and who were born in the range of dates listed
above. This registration effectively registered all unregistered men
between the ages of 18 and 45, inclusive, who were not already in the
military. These men registered using the twenty-question card.
A Few Well-Known People
We will look at the draft cards of a few well-known
individuals and see how lessons learned from these cards might help us
in searches for less well-known individuals.
George Burns--1st registration
George Burns was not always George Burns. Finding his card required
knowing his birth name. While your ancestor probably did not change his
name entirely, it is possible that the first name you have for him is a
nickname, an Anglicization of non-English name, or actually a middle
name. Locating the birth name of your ancestor may be necessary in
order to locate his card. Census records, church records,
naturalization records, or home sources may help you to uncover your
ancestor's true name. George Burns registered for the draft as Nathan
Birnbaum in New York City. He also indicated that his mother was his
dependent and claimed exemption from the draft based upon that fact.
Ira Gershiwn--2nd registration
Ira registered under the first name of Isidore. On this card, the
signature of registrant is easier to read than the handwriting of the
registrar. Ira registered under the second registration and
consequently provided his father's place of birth: Petrograd, Russia.
While the second registration caught few men, consider looking for the
card of any extended family members who were born between 06 June 1896
and 24 August 1897, as they used the second-registration card, which is
the only one to include this important question.
Jack Benny--1st registration
Jack Benny is another performer who registered under his real name: Ben
Kubelsky. This typed card is easier to read than many. Ben's card is
among the Lake County, Illinois, cards, but the registration was
completed in Harris County, Texas. Most likely Benny was touring at the
time of the registration. Some individuals would register in their
"home" county even if they were living somewhere else at the time of
E.E. Cummings--1st registration
The fancy handwriting on this card could easily have been
misinterpreted. Cummings' actual signature is more legible than the
registrar's handwriting. The first-registration card asked about
military service, and Cummings indicated he had been in the
Norton-Haries Ambulance Service in France.
Getting to the Cards
Subscribers to Ancestry.com can access
the World War I Draft Cards online as part of the U.S. Records
Collection. This database will continue to be updated until all the
cards have been added and the complete index has been posted.
The Southeast Regional Branch of the National Archives in
Georgia has the actual cards. It is possible to request copies of the
cards via mail for a small fee. More information about mail requests is
at the Friends of the National Archives-Southeast Region website (www.friendsnas.org/). More
information about the National Archives-Southeast Region can be
obtained on their website.
The draft cards were microfilmed by the Genealogical Society
of Utah several years ago. The microfilm is at some larger genealogical
libraries and branches of the National Archives. The microfilm of the
cards can also be obtained via loan at your local Family
History Center. You local center will not have the film on site,
but for a nominal charge they will order the roll(s) of microfilm
containing the area you need.
column on the draft cards has more links to finding aids and
information on the maps of the registration districts. Next week we
will take a look at using the search interface to the World War I draft
cards at Ancestry.com.
Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the
Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in
Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg
College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the
FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State
Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures
on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes
to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry
Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or
visit his website at www.rootdig.com/,
but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.
Copyright 2004, MyFamily.com.