Genealogy 101: #19 Learning More about World War I Draft Records (Part I)

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega shows how much important family history information is contained in World War I draft registration records. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

If you’re researching your male ancestor who was a young man during 1917-1918, then his World War I draft registration record might be a good source of family history information for your family tree. In this article, Part I, we’ll examine the history of World War I draft registration. Tomorrow, in Part II, we’ll look at the three draft registrations themselves.

By the time President Woodrow Wilson finally conceded to the inevitability of war against Germany in World War I, our allies had been fighting for three long years. On 6 April 1917, the United States formally declared war on Germany – which meant it was time to begin hammering out the details of staffing a military able to fight a war on foreign soil.

The day after the declaration of war, “An Act to Authorize the President to Increase Temporarily the Military Establishment of the United States” did exactly that. This legislation, referred to as the “Selective Service Act,” defined five steps to mobilize men for military service – the first step being registration.*

Photo: “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KZN9-C76: 12 December 2014), Joseph Newell Philibert
Photo: “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KZN9-C76: 12 December 2014), Joseph Newell Philibert, 1917-1918; citing Lowell City no 2, Massachusetts, United States, NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,674,351. Credit: FamilySearch.

The Beginnings of the WWI Draft

The draft registration, which essentially was a “census of draftable men,” captured vital record information for 24 million American men, approximately 23% of the U.S. population in 1918.** Each of the three registrations was conducted on specific days by draft boards in the man’s home voting precinct. Each registration recorded information that was meant to determine the individual’s eligibility for military service, including his family situation and physical fitness.***

It’s one thing to volunteer for military service, and another to be drafted. Not all men were ready to enthusiastically embrace the role of soldier. Almost immediately after war was declared, some men were trying to figure out how they could avoid military service.

This 19 April 1917 newspaper article reports on one such trend. Some men were getting married hoping that only single men would be called to serve. The newspaper article’s subtitle says it all: “Have Put Their Heads in Matrimonial Noose in Vain, Declares War Department.”

In this article, the War Department explains:

“All men married since the outbreak of the war will be treated upon the same basis as unmarried men in so far as their military obligations are concerned.”

An article about the World War I draft, Jersey Journal newspaper article 19 April 1917
Jersey Journal (Jersey City, New Jersey), 19 April 1917, page 1

WWI Draft Records Are Another Names List for Genealogists

The draft registered almost all men of a certain age, even those that would be considered unfit to serve in the military. Because of this, World War I draft records – like U.S. census records – are important names lists for family historians. Yes, even those who would not be called to military service were registered.

This was made apparent to me years ago when I researched a man whose occupation was listed on his draft record as “musician in jail.” I then realized he was actually incarcerated. Yes, felons were not considered fit for military service but they were registered nevertheless.

It seems that the possibility of getting rid of some of his jail’s inmates appealed to this Oakland, California, sheriff. He felt that some of their “experience” might even help with the war effort.

An article about the World War I draft, San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article 4 June 1917
San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 4 June 1917, page 8

John J. Newman’s book Uncle, We Are Ready! provides the instructions that were used for registering men in “special” circumstances during WWI, including incarceration, those out of the country, or even men hospitalized due to illness. No one, no matter how sick, was excused from registering. Newman reports:

“The registration law is so all-embracing that the male patients of military age in hospitals, including those who may be unconscious on June 5 will be compelled to register by proxy.”****

Start Searching Now!

Like the decennial U.S. census, World War I Draft Registration records provide genealogists with a look at their ancestor at a specific place and time. Information found on the World War I draft should be followed up with additional documents like vital records, city directories, and the newspaper.

Genealogy Tips for World War I Draft Registration Records

  • Remember that if your ancestor was already serving in the military, he would not be represented in the draft registration.
  • This is a good index for men born between 1872 and 1899.
  • Remember that a man may have filled out a draft registration and later served in the military – but filling out a draft registration card doesn’t necessarily mean he served.
  • Men were registered who lived in the states and then-territories Alaska and Hawaii, as well as Puerto Rico.
  • Card registrations done in Puerto Rico are in Spanish.
  • Men who were aliens and visitors were even registered, so if your ancestor was just visiting the U.S. during the time of the registrations, look for a possible draft card.

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* Newman, John J. Uncle, We Are Ready! Registering America’s Men, 1917-1918. A Guide to Researching World War I Draft Registration Cards. North Salt Lake, Utah: Heritage Quest, 2001.
** “World War Draft Registration Cards,” National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/research/military/ww1/draft-registration : accessed 24 March 2017).
*** Newman, John J. Uncle, We Are Ready! Registering America’s Men, 1917-1918. A Guide to Researching World War I Draft Registration Cards. North Salt Lake, Utah: Heritage Quest, 2001.
**** Ibid, p. 30.

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