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Overheard on the Message Boards: WWI Draft Registration Cards
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.

September 12, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I have two great-grandfathers I'm trying to find in turn-of-the century Brooklyn. I understand they both would have had to register for the draft. How do I check out these registrations? (I don't have their exact addresses, only the city). -- Susan

A: The World War I draft registration cards are sometimes the only source that will supply the researcher with valuable information including the date and place of birth of the man who is registering. Of course there are approximately 24 million cards, and the original cards are found on more than 4,000 rolls of microfilm.

As you can imagine, such a large collection of records must be organized in one way or another. The cards for the World War I draft are organized first by state, then by county, sometimes further by city, then by draft board, and finally alphabetically.

An address is essential for the WWI draft cards.

You Need an Address

When researching in a rural county, where there is only one draft board, it is easy to search for an ancestor. In your case, when you are searching for those who are in a large city like Brooklyn, then it becomes essential that you have their address. Your ancestor's address will lead you to the appropriate draft board and therefore to the draft card.

In terms of how the boards were organized, there was to be one draft board for every county under 30,000 inhabitants. When a county exceeded the 30,000, then additional boards were created for each group of additional 30,000 inhabitants living in the area. As you can imagine, cities such as New York City have many draft boards. For Brooklyn alone there are 65 draft boards. However, it is not impossible to locate your great-grandfathers in the draft cards and know which microfilm you need to order to your local Family History Center.

While there are a few online avenues transcribing and/or digitizing the cards, there is no complete online avenue for searching the World War I draft registration cards. Instead you will first need to learn where your great-grandfathers were living, then look at some microfilmed maps, and then you will be able to get the correct films for the board in question.

Most of the cards for a given board are found on more than one microfilm. Usually the alphabet has been split in two, this is true even of rural areas. So it is possible that when you have narrowed down the location of your great-grandfathers that you will need to order two different microfilms.

From Address to Registration Card

The first thing you will need to do is to locate the address where your great-grandfathers were living in 1917. You may be able to pick this up by locating them in the 1920 census. The 1920 census should help you by first giving you an address, but more importantly supplying you with an occupation. While some of the city directories list the name of the spouse in parenthesis, they almost always list the occupation. The occupation is often a good way to verify that you have found the correct individual.

Your local Family History Center can help you access the city directories that are available on microfilm for larger cities through 1930. In my research, however, I have found that sometimes years are missing so you may not find a city directory for the exact year you need. While missing years force you to use city directories for the years before and after, I encourage you to look at least three years before and three years after to be sure you know where he was and if he moved around. Knowing where your great-grandfathers were in both 1917 and 1918 will be important just in case they did not register until 1918. If they moved, you may find them covered by a different draft board.

The other way that the city directories will help you is by giving you information to identify the street and where it was in the city. Most of the city directories include information about the ward where the city can be found, at the very least, and usually also the cross streets. The cross streets should help you to limit your search to a given block or two. You will then need to turn your attention to the Draft Board maps that are available on microfilm.

The draft board maps are available on microfilm and there is a map for Brooklyn. They are sometimes difficult to read since the maps were in color and have now been written on to show the draft board boundaries. If you have used the city directory thoroughly you should have a block in mind where your great-grandfathers lived. Using the Brooklyn draft board map, you should then be able to determine which draft boards registered your great-grandfathers (it is always possible that they registered at the same one).

More Information

Once you have the draft board numbers, you will need to search the Family History Library Catalog for the film number(s) needed for the surnames and draft board(s) that your great-grandfathers were most likely to have registered with. Of course, the draft does not list everyone, it is approximately 98% of the men living in the United States at the time. If the man in question was already in the military he would not have registered. This included those in the Regular Army, Navy, Marine Corps, as well as those on active duty in the National Guard and the Enlisted Reserve Corps. Aliens who arrived for the first time after the date of registration will not be found either, unless he had declared his intentions to become a U.S. citizen. Of course there were also a few people who just chose not to register for different reasons.

For more information on the World War I Draft Registration, you may want to read the other Overheard on the Message Boards columns done on this subject in the past:

There is also an excellent book available that gives a lot of detail about the draft registration and what you can learn from the cards. This book also has a detailed list of all of the draft boards and the Family History Library number so you could use it once you determine the draft boards your great-grandfathers used. The book, Uncle, We are Ready! Registering America's Men 1917-1918 is by John J. Newman and is published by Heritage Quest.

In Conclusion

Quite a bit of information about an ancestor can be found on a World War I draft registration card. In addition to the date and place of birth, you will also find a physical description of the individual as well as his original signature. Of course, finding the card does sometimes take a little detective work, especially when working in a large city such as Brooklyn.

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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