In 1917 and 1918, approximately 24 million men living in the United States completed a World War I draft registration card. These registration cards represent approximately 98% of the men under the age of 46. The total U.S. population in 1917-1918 was about 100 million individuals. In other words, close to 25% of the total population is represented in these records.
The WWI draft registration cards database can be an extremely useful resource because it covers a significant portion of the U.S. male population in the early twentieth-century. If you had family in the United States during WWI, you are likely to find at least one relative’s information within this large collection. In addition, these cards contain more than just names and dates; they can contain significant genealogical information such as birthplace, citizenship status, and information on the individual’s nearest relative.
On 6 April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and officially entered World War I. Six weeks later, on 18 May 1917, the Selective Service Act was passed, which authorized the president to increase the military establishment of the United States. As a result, every male living within the United States between the ages of eighteen and forty-five was required to register for the draft.
The period of 1880-1920 was a high immigration period to the United States. Young men were required to register for the draft regardless of their U.S. citizenship status. Of course, not all the men who registered actually served in the armed forces, and there were some who enlisted and served in the war but did not register for the draft.
- First Registration. The registration on 5 June 1917, was for men aged twenty-one to thirty-one—men born between 6 June 1886 and 5 June 1896.
- Second Registration. The registration on 5 June 1918, was for men who had turned twenty-one years of age since the previous registration—men born between 6 June 1896 and 5 June 1897. Men who had not previously registered and were not already in the military also registered. In addition, a supplemental registration on 24 August 1918, was for men who turned twenty-one years of age since 5 June 1918.
- Third Registration. The registration on 12 Sept 1918, was for men aged eighteen to twenty-one and thirty-one to forty-five—men born between 11 Sept 1872 and 12 Sept 1900.
Each of the three separate registrations used a slightly different version of the draft registration card. Because different cards were used, the information included in each varies.
In general, the registration cards included the following information.
- Full name
- Home address
- Date and place of birth
- Age, race, and country of citizenship
- Occupation and employer
- Physical description (hair and eye color, height, disabilities)
- Additional information such as address of nearest relative, dependent relatives, marital status, father’s birthplace, or previous exemption from service
The card used for the first registration (sometimes called the Twelve-Question card because of twelve questions on the front) includes this information: name, age, address, date and place of birth, citizenship status, employer’s name and address, dependent information, marital status, race, military service, and physical appearance.
View a sample Twelve-Question draft card
The card used for the second registration (sometimes called the Ten-Question card because of ten questions on the front) includes this information: name, age, address, date and place of birth, father’s birthplace, citizenship status, occupation, employer’s name and address, dependent information, name and address of nearest relative, and physical appearance.
View a sample Ten-Question draft card
The card used for the third registration (sometimes called the Twenty-Question card because of twenty questions on the front) includes the name, address, age, date of birth, race, citizenship status, occupation, employer's name and address, name and address of nearest relative, and physical appearance.
View a sample Twenty-Question draft card
The WWI Draft Registration Cards Today
The original records are kept at the National Archives—Southeast Region in East Point, Georgia. Microfilm copies are at the National Archives regions that serve their respective states. In addition, some large libraries have the film of these cards for their own state. You may want to inquire on state or county message boards (boards.ancestry.com) about the potential availability of some records in your own area.
- Some Italian immigrants wrote their last names first, resulting in some cards being filed under first names. Also, cards of Hispanics may be filed under their mother's maiden name surname if the registrant gave both parents' surnames.
- Men who resided in British territories sometimes listed themselves simply as British citizens without noting their origin in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Jamaica, etc.
- Illiterate men were unable to spell their names and birth location, so you may need to be flexible when searching for specific names.
- If your family member had his twenty-first birthday between 5 June 1917 and the summer of 1918, his registration card may also include his father’s birthplace as well as his own birthplace.
- Because each registered male had to sign the draft card, you can see the actual signature of your relative. (Some illiterate men might not have signed their own card.)
- Not all men who registered for the draft actually served in the military, and not all men who served in the military registered for the draft. This civilian registration is often confused with induction into the military; however, only a small percentage of these men who registered were actually called up for military service.
- In many areas, the draft registration was an event. Some cities held parades and closed businesses for the day. Other cities announced the start of registration by blowing whistles, ringing church bells, and firing canons.
- If a registrant was not living in his home town, he could register elsewhere and the card would be sent to his home draft board. In some rural counties, it may have been easier to travel to the bordering county to register and request that the registration be sent on to the actual county. Because it’s possible that some registrations were never transferred, an individual’s card may appear in a neighboring county or state.
- Non-citizens were required to register but were not subject to induction into the American military.
What is in the WWI Draft Registration Cards database?
The World War I Draft Registration Cards database includes images of actual draft registration cards. You can browse images by locality (state, county, city, draft board) or you can search the index using name, birth date, and birthplace.
Does the database contain entries for any famous people?
Many well-known individuals registered for the draft. For example, you can view the draft cards for Ty Cobb, Joseph P. Kennedy, and Norman Rockwell.
These records are arranged by state, county, and draft board. If your ancestor lived in a rural area, locating them through the browse function can be relatively easy since there was often only one or two draft boards per county. For ancestors in urban areas, it may be necessary to refer to draft board registration maps to determine the draft board(s) where your may have ancestor registered. Check boards near his home, as well as near his work.
To access draft board registration maps, you might want to visit or contact the Family History Library. The Family History Library has film #1,498,803 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1860: "Boundary Maps of Selected Cities and Counties of World War I Selective Service Draft Registration Boards, 1917-18") which contains maps of the following cities:
- Alabama: Birmingham
- California: Los Angeles, San Diego
- Colorado: Denver
- Connecticut: Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven
- District of Columbia : Washington
- Georgia: Atlanta
- Illinois: Chicago
- Indiana: Indianapolis
- Kansas: Kansas City
- Kentucky: Louisville
- Louisiana: New Orleans
- Maryland: Baltimore
- Massachusetts: Boston
- Minnesota: Minneapolis, St. Paul
- New Jersey: Jersey City
- New York: Albany, Buffalo, Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Rensselaer, Richmond, Staten Island, Rochester, Schenectady, Syracuse
- Ohio: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo
- Pennsylvania: Allegheny, Luzern, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Reading, Westmoreland
- Texas: Dallas
- Wisconsin: Milwaukee
- Washington: Seattle