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Using Ancestry.Com: Search Tips For WWI Draft Registrations

by Michael John Neill

Searching World War I draft cards is significantly easier than before thanks to the online index at This is particularly true for those whose ancestors were urban dwellers or in cases where the residence is not known.

There were three separate registrations for the draft (with slightly different cards and questions) and all three are included in this database. More information on the various registrations, who they included, and what questions were asked can be found towards the bottom of the database search page. Keeping this in mind, let's take a look at some search options.

First Name
The first name box allows for searches of any name other than the last name. Many registration cards contain one or more middle names and these names are also searchable using the "first name" search box.

For cards that include a first and a middle name, it is possible to locate the card using either the first name alone, the middle name alone, or the first and middle name together.

The only restriction would be that the name would have to be spelled in the index the way it is entered in the search box. Wildcard operators can be used in the name box to get around this limitation; the only restraint is that three characters must be used before the wildcard operator.

The "*" and "?" can be used to create broader searches. "Joh*" will result in matches such as Johan, Johann, and John. (The "*" can be replaced by any number of characters.) "Joh?" will catch John, but not Johann and Johan. (The "?" is replaced by only one character.)

Wildcard operators can be used when multiple names are used in the first name box. Searches of a first name like "mic* joh*" are allowed and would catch names such as Michael John, Micheal Johann, John Michel, Johan Carl Michael, etc.

Last Name
With any last name and any database, consider all reasonable spellings and variants. Name variants are not as problematic with the draft cards as they are with earlier records. However, names still get misspelled, misread, and incorrectly indexed. Wildcard operators are again helpful and the use of the Soundex option (which catches names with similar sounds but different spellings) will catch most alternates. Soundex works reasonably well with names that have English or Germanic origins. Names from other languages are not always easily found using a Soundex-based search. Wildcard operators may be a better approach with these names.

Registration Place
When searching based upon the registration place, keep in mind that in rural counties, the only information in the index may be the state and county; the "city" of registration may not be listed on the index (more precise information should be on the card). Because of this, begin a search for any non-urban relative by using a state and if necessary, a county. Keep in mind that your family member might show up in an unexpected place and only use registration locations when necessary to reduce the number of hits to a manageable level.

This was required on the cards of men who registered for the first and second registrations (generally those with dates of birth between 6 June 1886 and 5 June 1897). The third registration did not require the birthplace and the birthplace box should always be left blank for registrants outside the 6 June 1886-5 June 1897 time frame. Even for men within that birth range, the information extracted may vary in terms of specifics. Cards may list the town and state of birth, but in many cases the town does not appear in the index. Entering in a specific town in the city box for birth will result in fewer hits and less desired results.

Date of Birth
Dates of birth on the draft cards are usually correct, but there are always exceptions. There are known cases where the year of registration has been substituted on the card for the year of birth. In other cases, the precise date or month may have not been provided on the card. In all these situations the error or omission affects what is in the index. It is generally good advice to begin a search using only a year of birth and refine the search by adding a more precise date only if necessary.

This box may appear self-explanatory, but one must exercise caution when using it to search. Results may appear as African, Asian, Black, Caucasian, Colored, Mongolian, Mulatto, White, etc. Care must be taken or hits can easily be missed.

This field searches all the fields in the database. Entering Wilken in the Keyword field will result in matches where the first, middle, or last name was Wilken. This is a neat little tool when you are not certain of the name or when you are looking for middle names that might have been a mother's maiden name.

Left Things Blank
The draft card for James P. Hoone in New York City is particularly interesting. Other than his name, it is blank. Hopefully, your ancestor's card is more like the typical registration and is filled with helpful information!

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 currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) He conducts seminars and lectures nationally 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.

More of Michael's Genealogy how-to articles can be viewed at: