In 1917, a national project was begun to honor the Americans who served in World War I. A group of historians volunteered to government officials to help document the war - and thus was born the collecting and completing of memorial registers to those who served in “the war to end all wars.”
Although this was a nationally sponsored project, it was up to each state - more particularly each county - to collect records of its soldiers and also write up what had happened on the homefront. Forms were sent to each veteran or his survivors asking for information and a photo.
According to Nancy Compau, librarian in the Northwest Room at the Spokane Public Library, it seems that while this project was well-intentioned and well-begun, individual efforts were rarely completed and published. The only two completed projects she knows of in Washington state were for Whitman and Snohomish counties. The Northwest Room also has information from Montana’s Yellowstone County.
In Spokane County, G.W. Fuller, head librarian in 1919, and W.S. Lewis, founder of the Eastern Washington Historical Society, began collecting information on local soldiers. They mailed questionnaires, contacted school boards and clipped newspaper items, gluing the material to cards for files labeled with each man’s name.
But in these files the information languished until 1991! That’s when the Spokane library moved across the street from its old building into the empty department store. While preparing for the transfer, Nancy Compau found some very dusty, unidentified boxes high on a shelf in a forgotten part of the basement. Looking into them, she found the World War I veterans’ files.
The files have since been cleaned up and organized and now reside safely in the Northwest Room.
Compau would be delighted to help genealogists use this wonderful resource. She recently corresponded with a Florida man in his 70s who had never known his father. He wrote her saying he’d just discovered that his father had died in World War I and that he was from Spokane. Although his mother had remarried and never told him anything about his father, a family member finally told him that much.
After reading the soldier’s file, Compau sent the son in Florida a picture of his father and news that he’d been a hero, cited for “outstanding courage.”
That’s the kind of success story all genealogists want to hear.
Some of the artwork in the three books I looked at in the Northwest Room are truly beautiful.
The Spokane County files contain the record of 1st Lt. Louis Hampden Pinkham Jr. He was 29 when he entered the service on Aug. 23, 1917, and was deployed for training at the Presido in San Francisco. He was shipped to France, where he died of pneumonia in 1919. His mother furnished the information for his file, which includes a newspaper article and personal accounts of his war experience:
“We have seen heavy fighting, desperate at times. My battery has fired more shots than any battery in the brigade … and I have never failed on any mission given me though my men and I have gone days and nights without sleep.”
I strongly urge you to write letters to county and state archives to look for memorial registers or unpublished collected files of your World War I ancestor.
Most World War I men were drafted. Nearly 24 million men, 18 to 45 years old, registered for the draft. There were a dozen questions for them to answer on the registration card, including name, date and place of birth, nationality and citizenship, occupation and personal description.
I teach in my classes that if your ancestor was between 18 and 45 in 1917, then he had to register for the draft regardless if he ever served.
These registrations have been microfilmed and are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and the local Family History Centers. That’s the “good news.”
The “bad news” is that you must know the county where your ancestor registered, for they are filmed by county. You will not likely find him if all you know is the state. To find the film numbers, using
Family Search at the computer, look under United States - Military Records - World War, 1914-1918.
I prepared a four-page handout on these World War I draft registration records. If you’d like a copy, send me a legal-size, stamped, self-addressed envelope in care of this paper.
There are other resources to find information on your World War I ancestor: The National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100, has service and pension papers. Write first for form R6-7231 to access the records. Many states have lists of veterans’ names, such at The Official Roster of Ohio Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, World War 1917-1918, published by the state of Ohio in 1928.
Publishing lists of veterans’ names is a continuing project of genealogical societies. The Northeast Washington Genealogical Society in Colville, in its Pioneer Branches magazine, carried a list of World War I draft registrations from Stevens County, as first printed in The Colville Examiner on June 16, 1917. (A total of 1,597 men from Stevens County registered.)
Don’t forget to check your home and family sources. In a recent class, a student brought a postcard his ancestor had sent to his family in Cheney. It was a military, preprinted postcard, sent for free, stating the man’s name and organization and the phrase, “The ship on which I sailed has arrived safely overseas.”