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Overheard in GenForum: Looking for a WWI Veteran
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

June 17, 1999
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Looking for information on my grandfather who was a WW1 Veteran. His name was Henry Patrick HEIDEL, b. 1883? He was from New Rochelle, NY.... -- Gigi

A: When researching an ancestor who was involved in World War I, one record is very often overlooked by the research. The World War I draft cards can be a great benefit to the researcher.

While the first conscription act was passed during the Civil War, to say that it was welcomed would be an overstatement. In fact it was denounced as being un-American. However, by the time World War I broke out, it was accepted as a manner in which to raise an army. It is important to point out that only the Army had the draft. Those of our ancestors who were in the Navy or the Marines in the United States had volunteered to that branch of military service.

There were actually three draft registrations in 1917 and 1918:

  • 5 June 1917 - men between the ages 21 and 31
  • 5 June 1918 - men who had reached the age of 21 since the registration 5 June 1917
  • 12 Sept 1918 - men between the ages 18 and 45

In all there are some 24 million cards for men who registered for the draft. Keep in mind that if your ancestor voluntarily joined the Army, he will not be listed in the draft cards.

The existence of the draft cards is a benefit to researchers of WW I ancestors.

What Will the Draft Cards Tell You?

The World War I draft cards will not tell you about the parentage of your ancestor. They do supply you though with a number of valuable clues to your ancestor, including:

  • Order and serial number (info supplied by Selective Service)
  • Full name
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Race
  • Occupation
  • Name and address of contact person (very often a relative)
  • Personal description
  • Physical limitations
  • Signature

There is something exciting about locating your ancestor on these cards and discovering the color of their hair and eyes. The personal description also gives you an insight into how tall they were and their weight. While not supplying actual numbers, you can get a glimpse by finding out that your ancestor was tall and slim. On one of the cards I located recently, my ancestor was described as having a shortened right leg and that he was missing his right eye. I had not known anything about these infirmities until I read them on the card.

Accessing the Draft Cards

Up until the early 1990s the only place to find the draft registration cards was at the Atlanta Branch of the National Archives, located in East Point, Georgia. The complete set of microfilmed draft cards is available there. However, in the early 1990s, the Family History Library acquired copies of the over four thousand microfilms and you can now borrow them through your local Family History Center.

How Are the Cards Organized?

In order to search the draft cards, you must know, at the very least, the state and county where your ancestor would have registered. For those researching in the larger cities, such as New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, there are many draft boards, and you will need to first locate your ancestor in a city directory to determine the street he was living on to better understand what board he would most likely have registered with.

Under each board, the cards are generally in alphabetical order. However, the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have alphabetized the cards statewide.

The county of Westchester, New York had six registration boards. They are on six microfilm reels. It is likely you will not need to order all six as the alphabet for certain draft boards was spread over multiple films. To locate these films in the Family History Library Catalog, you will want to look under United States - Military Records, 1914-1919.

Aids for Large Cities

The reason for multiple draft boards in various areas can be traced to how the boards were set up. A board was established for a population of greater than 30,000. Therefore, the larger cities can have many draft boards. In fact, New York City has over 100 draft boards. To help in determining which draft board was the likely one visited by your ancestor in these larger cities, you will want to look at the draft board maps. There are maps for the following cities:

Albany County, NYAllegheny County, PA
Atlanta, GABaltimore, MD
Birmingham, ALBoston, MA
Bridgeport, CTBronx, NY
Brooklyn, NYBuffalo, NY
Chicago, ILCincinnati, OH
Cleveland, OHDallas, TX
Denver, CODistrict of Columbia
Hartford, CTIndianapolis, IN
Jersey City, NJKansas City, MO
Los Angeles, CALouisville, KY
Luzerne County, PAManhattan, NY
Milwaukee, WIMinneapolis, WI
New Haven, CTNew Orleans, LA
Philadelphia, PAPittsburgh, PA
Queens, NYReading, PA
Rensselaer County, NYRichmond, NY
Rochester, NYSaint Paul, MN
San Diego, CASchenectady, NY
Seattle, WAStaten Island, NY
Syracuse, NYToledo, OH
Westmoreland, PA

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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