All males in the United States between the ages of 18 and 45 were required by law to register for the draft throughout 1917 and 1918, making WWI draft records a rich source of information on millions of American males born between about 1872 and 1900. The WWI draft registration records are by far the biggest group of such draft records in the U.S., containing names, ages, and dates and place of birth for more than 24 million men.
Notable registrants of the World War One draft include, among many others, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire,Charlie Chaplin, Al Capone, George Gershwin, Norman Rockwell and Babe Ruth.
Record Type: Draft registration cards, original records (microfilm and digital copies also available)
Location: U.S., although some individuals of foreign birth are also included.
Time Period: 1917–1918
Best For: Learning the exact date of birth for all registrants (especially useful for men born prior to the onset of state birth registration), and exact place of birth for men born between 6 June 1886 and 28 August 1897 who registered in the first or second draft (possibly the only source of this information for foreign-born men who never became naturalized U.S. citizens).
What are WWI Draft Registration Records?
On May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act authorized the President to temporarily increase the U.S. military. Under the office of the Provost Marshal General, the Selective Service System was established to draft men into military service. Local boards were created for each county or similar state subdivision, and for each 30,000 people in cities and counties with a population greater than 30,000.
During World War I there were three draft registrations:
- 5 June 1917 – all men between the ages of 21 and 31 residing in the U.S. – whether native born, naturalized, or alien
- 5 June 1918 – men who reached age 21 after 5 June 1917. (A supplemental registration, included in the second registration, was held on 24 August 1918, for men who turned 21 years old after 5 June 1918.)
- 12 September 1918 – all men between age 18 and 45.
What You Can Learn From WWI Draft Records:
At each of the three draft registrations a different form was used, with slight variations in the information requested. In general, however, you’ll find the registrant’s full name, address, phone number, date and place of birth, age, occupation and employer, the name and address of the nearest contact or relative, and the signature of the registrant. Other boxes on the draft cards asked for descriptive details such as race, height, weight, eye and hair color and other physical characteristics.
Keep in mind that WWI Draft Registration Records are not military service records – they don’t document anything past the individual’s arrival at training camp and contain no information about an individual’s military service. It is also important to note that not all of the men who registered for the draft actually served in the military, and not all men who served in the military registered for the draft.
Where Can I Access WWI Draft Records?
The original WWI draft registration cards are in the custody of the National Archives – Southeast Region near Atlanta, Georgia. They are also available on microfilm (National Archives publication M1509) at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, local Family History Centers, the National Archives and its Regional Archive centers. On the Web, subscription-based Ancestry.com offers a searchable index to the WWI Draft Registration Records, as well as digital copies of the actual cards. The complete collection of digitized WWI draft records, plus a searchable index, is also available online for free from FamilySearch — United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918.
How to Search the WWI Draft Registration Records
To effectively search for an individual among the WWI draft registration records, you’ll need to know at least the name and the county in which he registered. In large cities and in some large counties, you’ll also need to know the street address to determine the correct draft board. There were 189 local boards in New York City, for example. Searching by name only is not always enough as is fairly common to have numerous registrants with the same name.
If you don’t know the individual’s street address, there are several sources where you may be able to find this information. City directories are the best source, and can be found at most large public libraries in that city and through Family History Centers. Other sources include the 1920 Federal Census (assuming that the family didn’t move after the draft registration), and any contemporary records of events that occurred about that time (vital records, naturalization records, wills, etc.).
If you’re searching online and don’t know where your individual was living, you can sometimes find him through other identifying factors. Many individuals, especially in the southeast U.S., registered by their full name, including middle name, which can make them easier to identify. You could also narrow the search by month, day and/or year of birth.