When Julie Bowen began her Who Do You Think You Are? journey to learn more about her great-grandfather “Big Charlie,” she had learned that he served in World War I, but she was shocked when she learned what that service entailed.
World War I was a major event in the history of the United States, and, as major events often do, it resulted in a wealth of unique resources for genealogical research. War leads to an increased need for organization on the part of governments, which in turn leads to an increase in official, detailed documents concerning the lives of everyday people. World War I was no exception.
World War I Draft Registration Cards
During the early years of the war, the United States preferred to remain neutral and maintained only a small standing army. The United States’ entry into the war in 1917, however, meant that the United States needed to grow its military quickly. The United States officially declared war on the German Empire on 6 April 1917, and just over six weeks later, on 18 May 1917, the United States Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which authorized a military draft.
At first, all men aged 21 to 31 were required to register (unless they were already in a military unit), but this was later expanded to 18 to 45 in the third registration. Compliance was quite high, with about 98 percent of men in these age ranges filling out a draft registration card.
The men had to provide their name, home address, and exact birth date, as well as the name, and in some cases the residence, of their “nearest relative.” Perhaps most importantly, the men who signed up in the first two registrations (those men born between 6 June 1886 and 28 August 1897) were asked to provide their exact place of birth. Birth records are hard to come by before the early 1900s, so the information in a World War I Draft Registration can fill in this gap and many others. It is also important to note that men were required to register regardless of their citizenship status, so unnaturalized immigrants also appear in these records. The United States experienced large waves of immigration beginning in the 1880s and continuing through World War I, and these cards can often be key to identifying an immigrant’s place of birth in the old country.
Charles Daniel Frey’s draft registration.
He registered on 5 June 1917—the first registration—so his exact birthplace is listed.
Alien Enemy Registration
Immigrants living in the United States may show up in more records related to the war than just draft cards. Germans were among the largest groups of immigrants arriving in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As with most Americans, leading up to the United States’ entry into the war, many German-Americans preferred that America remain neutral. Many had friends and relatives still living in Germany and/or serving in the German military, and a small number of German-Americans even decided to return to Germany to fight. During this time, German-Americans came under suspicion. When America declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire in December of 1917, immigrants from Austria-Hungary’s diverse lands were also put under scrutiny.
Casual suspicion by neighbors could quickly become official inquiry by the government as the American Protective League grew in influence. Julie Bowen’s ancestor, Daniel Frey, a descendant of recent German immigrants, was a prominent leader of the American Protective League. On 19 April 1918 President Woodrow Wilson made a proclamation requiring “all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of Germany or Austria Hungary of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized” to register with the government as “alien enemies.”
Although a controversial chapter in American history, the documents created as a result of this proclamation are treasure troves for people researching their German and Austro-Hungarian immigrant ancestors. Unlike the draft registration, both males and females were required to fill out their own cards, and the age range was much broader. In addition to providing an exact birth date and place for the “alien enemy,” the forms also required information about when the alien arrived in the United States, names and birthdates of the alien’s immediate family (including parents and siblings), prior military service, and the names of any relatives serving in the war on either side. These files also include a photograph. Due to the controversial nature of these records, most have been destroyed, but some still exist—most notably for Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona, and the city of San Francisco.
Tips from AncestryProGenealogists
- Examine any and all World War I draft registration cards that apply to your ancestors and their relatives. Even if your direct ancestor was not in the right age range at the time, it is possible that a relative was and that this relative provided a residence or birthplace that could also apply to your ancestor.
- Check if your ancestor could be in a surviving alien enemy file. It’s a long shot, but if your ancestor was an unnaturalized immigrant from the German Empire or Austro-Hungarian Empire and was alive during World War I, they may have lived in an area where alien enemy records survive. Apart from providing valuable genealogical information, they are an oft-forgotten piece of American history. The records of Kansas aliens who registered are online at Ancestry.
- Try various spellings and wildcards when searching for your German ancestors. It has always been common for record-keepers unfamiliar with foreign surnames to spell them however they liked (as in the case of Charles Daniel Frey being recorded as Charles Daniel Frye), but anti-German sentiment during World War I led many Germans to change their names to less “German” versions (Hans Schmidt became John Smith, Ludwig Alexander von Battenberg became Louis Alexander Mountbatten, etc.).
- Wondering if your ancestors were part of the American Protective League? Search for them in these collections on Ancestry.
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