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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 9/29/2004
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Searching the World War I Draft Cards

The World War I draft cards have been difficult for many genealogists to use for some time. Family historians who did not know where their relative lived at the time of registration frequently had difficulty locating the desired card, particularly if the registrant lived in an urban area, or if their residence could not be pinpointed to a specific state in more rural areas.

With the ongoing release of a nationwide index to these cards, has made finding the desired registrant's draft card easier.

This week we will discuss the search interface for these cards in hopes of making the search experience as smooth as possible. Of course, there are no guarantees.

We will look at each of the search terms and see how effective and creative searches can be constructed.

General Warnings
Some cards are difficult to read and words or letters may not have been transcribed as the writer intended. The ink on some cards has faded over time and is hard to read. Some cards were not microfilmed very well, and the resulting image is faint. "World War I Draft Cards of the Rich and Famous" discusses cards from several well-known individuals and looks at some of these very issues.

First Name and Last Name
The search technique for these two boxes is similar. Obviously spellings can be incorrect, handwriting can be difficult to read, and inadvertent mistakes can be made. One way to catch spelling errors with last names stemming from some languages is to use the Soundex search option. This option works only on the last name and does not work equally well with all surnames. French, Spanish, and other languages do not lend themselves to Soundex-based searches. For more on Soundex, see earlier articles in this column.
Soundex: Part I
Soundex: Part II

Wildcard searches can also be conducted on the first name or last name (or both). Wildcard searches use the asterisk (*) as a stand in for any letter or number of letters.

A search for Sam* Neil* would catch the following entries
Sam Neil
Samuel Neil
Samuel Neill
Sammie Neill Sammy Neil
...and many others.

Note that this search would not locate Samuel Neal, because the third letter in the surname is different, an "a" instead of an "i." (A Soundex search for Samuel Neill would locate Samuel Neal, though.) Wildcard searches at require that at least three characters be used before the wildcard operator is inserted.

In some cases wildcard searches may result in too many matches and additional letters or search terms will have to be used.

The state of residence should be recorded for every registrant. Some registrants might have registered in their county of birth if they had moved recently or moved frequently. One relative of mine was living and working in St. Louis but registered in Hancock County, Illinois, where he was from and where his family was living at the time of the registration.

The county of residence should be recorded for every registrant. Unless you are absolutely certain of the county of residence, leave it blank when conducting a search. If the desired registrant moved or did not live in the county where you think he should have, you can easily overlook him by specifying the county.

For those that registered in metropolitan areas, the city of residence is usually included in the index. The town of registration is not usually included in the index for those who registered in less populated areas. Consequently unless I am looking for someone in a metropolitan area, I leave this search term blank.

The birthplace field can be helpful, but remember that the third registration, which used the twenty-question card, did not require this information. The third registration basically registered men born between 11 September 1872 and 5 June 1886 and men born between 25 August 1897 and 12 Sept 1900. The other two registrations asked birthplace information. (For more on the various registrations and the questions asked, see "World War I Draft Cards of the Rich and Famous."

Even if the card included the specific town of birth, the information might not be included in the index.

The card itself may be missing some obvious information. The card of John P. Nolan, born 1 June 1897 lists only "Chicago" as his place of birth. Consequently that is the only birthplace information included in the index (transcribers are not to “add” information to the card that is not there). There are numerous individuals for whom only the city is listed as the place of birth. A search for John P. Nolan born in Illinois will not locate the card for the John P. Nolan born 1 June 1897 in Chicago. Similarly, the card of William Bohnsack, born 19 Oct 1891 lists Chicago, Cook County, USA, as his place of birth.

My suggestion for the birthplace box is to search using only the state first. If that does not work, then try searching based upon the city of birth, without using the name of the state. This works well for larger cities where the registrant may simply have listed the city, without the state, where he was born. A search for "Chicago Illinois" (both words) in the birthplace box resulted in only two hits at the time this article was written.

The North and the South or the West and the "East"
Entering "Carolina" in the birthplace box will bring results for both North Carolina and South Carolina, or any birthplace containing the word "Carolina." In a similar fashion one can search for both the Dakotas by entering just "Dakota" or Virginia and West Virginia by entering "Virginia" in the birthplace box. This is a nice feature for these areas.

Birth Date Information
Almost all cards include the day, month, and year of birth for the registrant. A very few cards do not include this information. Searching based upon birth date information should begin with the year only and then include the month if necessary, based upon the number of search results obtained with just the year. If you think John Smith was born in October of 1893 and for some reason his draft card says November of 1893 a search for October of 1893 will not return the desired card.

I rarely use the precise date of birth for two reasons. One is that searching based upon date requires the date of birth I have for the person to be the exact same date of birth listed on the card. The other reason is that some numbers can easily be misread, especially if the writing on the card is difficult to read.

One can easily search for births within a given decade by performing a wildcard search. Entering 189* as the year of birth will search for all births in the 1890s. This can be an effective way of narrowing a search based upon an age when the exact year of birth is unknown.

What's on the Cards and a Few Other Ideas
Always remember to go "beyond the index" and look at each individual card. The index entry for John Wachtendorf from Hancock County, Illinois, indicates he was born in Germany on 15 September 1887. A look at the actual card provides his actual place of birth: Holtrop.

Searches can even be conducted without names. I searched for every card in Hancock County, Illinois, with German-born registrant. One of the names was my great-grandmother's first cousin, the only one of his generation born in Germany (his father was the only one in his family to marry before emigrating). If I had not known where the family was from, this would have been a significant find.

Experiment with the search never know what you might find.

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 or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2004,

Used by the author on his website with permission.

Other Genealogy Articles by Michael John Neill