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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Draft Cards - An Overlooked Resource?
by Rhonda R. McClure

September 13, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Many times in our eagerness to jump back through the generations, we overlook valuable and useful resources from the twentieth century. One such useful resource is the World War I draft card.

Even if you already know all the names, dates, and places for twentieth-century ancestry, you may find that the World War I draft cards offer something you didn't know such as a personal description.

Don't overlook the World War I draft cards.

Selective Service

The Selective Service System was created by Congress on 18 May 1917 when the United States entered World War I. The legislation required men of certain ages to register for possible draft into the military. One important point to make, not all those who were in the military filled out draft cards and not all those who filled out the draft cards ended up in the military.

The World War I draft was actually the culmination of three separate draft periods. Each period included the registration of males who were a certain age:

  • First Draft (5 June 1917) - required that all men aged 21-31 register with their local draft board
  • Second Draft (5 June 1918) - required that all men who had turned 21 since the first draft register
  • Third Draft (12 Sep 1918) - required all men ages 18-21 and 31-41 register

Between these three drafts, 24 million men born between 1873 and 1900 registered at a local draft board.

Where Are the Cards?

Locating these draft cards has been made easier because they are on microfilm. For a long time the only access one had to these records was through the Atlanta, Georgia branch of the National Archives. However, a few years ago, the Family History Library acquired these cards on microfilm. You can find them in the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) by searching UNITED STATES, Military Records - World War, 1914-1918. There are presently 18 types of records under this heading, and the draft cards are record number 17.

To give you an idea of how massive the collection of cards on 24 million men is, the listing in the Family History Library Catalog includes over 4200 rolls of microfilm for this group alone. Of course for some of the states, that means there are many microfilm, perhaps even many draft boards.

Finding Your Ancestor

To locate your relative or ancestor in these cards, it is necessary to know certain things about him. Most important is where he was living at the time he would have registered for the draft. The draft boards were set up so that there was one board for every 30,000 people. What this means is that for rural areas, there was generally only one Selective Service board for the county. However, for some of the larger cities, there could be a number of them. For instance, the city of New York had 189 draft boards. Therefore, if your ancestor lived in a large city, you will need to know the street address for where he lived to be able to determine which Selective Service board his card would be displayed under.

Generally the cards are listed alphabetically by state and then by county or city, however there are some exceptions. The states of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are listed alphabetically by the name of the registrant.

For those larger cities, such as New York, there are maps available on microfilm that will help to identify the likely draft board based on the address of your ancestor in a city directory. The microfilmed maps including the following cities: Atlanta, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; Birmingham, Alabama; Boston, Massachusetts; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Buffalo, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Hartford, Connecticut; Dallas, Texas, Denver, Colorado; Indianapolis, Indiana; Jersey City, New Jersey; Kansas City, Kansas; Louisville, Kentucky; Los Angeles, California; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; New Orleans, Louisiana; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New Haven, Connecticut; New Jersey; San Diego, California; St. Paul, Minnesota; Seattle, Washington; Toledo, Ohio; Pennsylvania: Allegheny, Luzern, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Reading, Westmoreland; New York: Albany and Rensselear, Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Richmond, Staten Island, Rochester, Schenectady, Syracuse; and Washington, DC.

In Conclusion

The information that can be found on the registration card includes: registrant's name, birth date and birthplace, age, home address, occupation and employment information, marital status, physical description (including race, height, build, color of hair and eyes), earlier military service, citizenship, any disabilities, whether or not he was bald, and whether or not he was the sole responsibility for others in the household. It does not include any information about his actual military service.

The draft cards can help you with some of your early 1900 immigrants, including perhaps information about naturalization that may or may not appear on the 1920 census.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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