Indians and Categories in the WWI Draft Registration


There were three forms used by registrars for the WWI draft which corresponded to the three draft events.  The first and second forms used both requested birthplace.  The second and third forms used included the name and location of the nearest relative.  The first and second forms both had a blank for race and the registrar wrote in the race of the registrant.  So if someone wrote Indian in that blank, you know it wasn’t a mistake. 

The third form, for the largest group of registrants, and therefore the form we see the most, was arranged differently.  Someone had tried to improve things, I’m sure, but they created confusion instead.

There was a row of boxes for Race.  The first three were straightforward, white, negro and oriental.  The 4th and 5th however, were both for Indian and they were labeled “citizen” and “noncitizen”.

The row of boxes below that was for Citizenship.  This row also had 5 boxes, the first three of which were labeled natural born, naturalized, citizen by father’s naturalization before registrants majority.  The fourth and fifth boxes were for aliens and were labeled declarent and nondeclarent.  Finally, a question below this row asked “if you are not a citizen of the US, what nation are you a citizen or subject of?”

Unfortunately, the combination of boxes led to significant confusion when registering people.  Many registrars when registering non-citizens from other countries checked the “non-citizen” box under the Indian heading, meaning they were not US citizens – having nothing to do with their race.  These boxes were one above the other, which also didn’t help.

You can see on the registration above what happened.  This person is clearly not American Indian.  The registrar incorrectly used the Race-Indian-NonCitizen box to designate that this person was not a US citizen. 

In locations that were port cities as well as large cities, this is very problematic.  In some states, every single card needs to be reviewed for accuracy. 

Fortunately, the combination of these boxes tells us relatively clearly who should and should not be included in the Native Heritage project.  Native Americans who registered for the draft will have one of the Race-Native boxes checked, in the US Citizen row, they will be native born, and they will not have any county designated in the following row.

Still, some records are ambiguous.  For example, in Chicago, which is a city of immigrants, we find Luigi Angellotti.  His name alone raises suspicions, as it is very definitely Italian sounding. But he is classified as a citizen Indian and native born.  There is no country written in the blank below.  He is a shoemaker, and his next of kin lives in Chicago, not another country.  So we have nothing in this record to exclude him from being an American Indian.  Of course, we could move beyond this record and check the 1920 census. In his case, when we do, we find Luigi, an Italian who is not naturalized, who arrived in 1908, living with his family.  So we know Luigi is not an American Indian, and the registrar registered him incorrectly. 

I can’t check the census for all suspicious entries, or I would not finish this project in my lifetime.  Many that I do check are not found in 1920.  Names could be misspelled, they could be in the service, they could live elsewhere or have died. 

What do we do with these kinds of records?  In some areas, such as Graham Co., NC, I don’t check the individual cards.  Why?  Because the Cherokee Indian Reservation is located in part of Graham County, so we would expect to see lots of Native American registrants and multiple registrants for each surname.  However, if I was to see our friend Luigi Angellotti, even in Graham County, I would check his actual card.  When I can, I simply use the index entries.

In other locations, I do check the cards.  Some I check when I’m suspicious, like in Detroit, for example.  In some locations, I check every card.  New Jersey and New York are good examples of these kinds of places.  They are natural landing places for new immigrants.  I eliminate every person who I’m certain isn’t American Indian and has been indexed that way due to registrar error.  In some places, that’s over 50% of the people in the index. 

When I have reason to be suspicious of other registrations, I do often check the census.  If I can’t reasonably eliminate someone, I include them, even if their name sounds suspiciously foreign.  This project isn’t meant to be exclusive, but to be a starting point for people – not the end point.


About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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7 Responses to Indians and Categories in the WWI Draft Registration

  1. Blended Soul says:

    This is really helpful. I have a lot of paternal ancestors who checked off “Negro” and “Indian Citizen” on their draft cards, and for years I couldn’t figure out what this category actually meant. I heard all sorts of theories, including that free Blacks checked off the Indian citizen box because they wanted to distinguish themselves from previously enslaved Blacks. My ancestors are from Accomack County, Chincoteague Island, VA. I’ve read that a lot of Native Americans lived there, but do you know for sure?

  2. MThomas says:

    This is a good question. I’ve always been curious about the registrar’s instructions. I did an exhaustive search of two counties in WV where my family lived. A small cluster of my related families have both white and citizen Indian checked on their wwi cards; physical description black eyes, black hair. Several different registrar’s work is represented in the enrollment cards, and certainly not every individual these registrars registered has both boxes checked. Now, to my knowledge, there is no known native descent (or even legend) in this particular family. One registrar was a member of the community that my grandmother said at one time worked at the elementary school. Did the registrars ask for racial identification or make determinations based on family knowledge, or appearance?

  3. diana owen says:

    My family came from Canada in Maliseet territory. In 1894 they moved to Massachusetts .
    My Great Uncle died in WW1 in 1819 France .
    His draft card states he was born on the Saint John in New Brunswick Canada,brown eyes , black hair and Under Race ” Cane ?”
    PLEASE any info would be huge .
    I know it was a slang used for “blacks” in Massachusetts back then . (?)

  4. Al says:

    I think that Indians were not consider citizens till 1924 or later.

  5. Sharon says:

    In researching a co-lateral line, I found three generations from the same family who had both the white and the Indian Citizen checked (Tennessee) where many others did not. The family was reputed to have Indian in their line. This helped clarify that in this case, it was likely to mean just that rather than error. Thank you

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