An alien notion

WWI alien registration

It was supposed to be the war to end all wars, that war that ravaged Europe at the start of the 20th century, that cost much of a generation of young men their lives, and that ended 94 years and five days ago, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.1

The United States had only entered the war on 6 April 1917, when Congress voted to declare war,2 but despite the brevity of U.S. involvement, the war caused the creation of a wealth of documents that American genealogists will find invaluable.

One set of records that exists today only in fragmentary form came into effect because of a Presidential Proclamation signed that day in April 1917 when Congress declared war.

In Proclamation 1364, President Woodrow Wilson declared, among other things, that “all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of a hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies” and that “If necessary to prevent violation of the regulations, all alien enemies will be obliged to register.”3

Six months later, on 16 November 1917, the President declared:

All alien enemies are hereby required to register at such times and places and in such manner as may be fixed by the Attorney General of the United States and the Attorney General is hereby authorized and directed to provide, as speedily as may be practicable, for registration of all alien enemies and for the issuance of registration cards to alien enemies and to make and declare such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary for effecting such registration; and all alien enemies and all other persons are hereby required to comply with such rules and regulations; and the Attorney General in carrying out such registration, is hereby authorized to utilize such agents, agencies, officers and departments of the United States and of the several states, territories, dependencies and municipalities thereof and of the District of Columbia as he may select for the purpose, and all such agents, agencies, officers and departments are hereby granted full authority for all acts done by them in the execution of this regulation when acting by the direction of the Attorney General. After the date fixed by the Attorney General for such registration, an alien enemy shall not be found within the limits of the United States, its territories or possessions, without having his registration card on his person.4

And with those words was born a record set that, for the lucky folks whose family member’s records survive, provides information that could well be hard to come by, or even impossible, in any other way. Because, between November 1917 and April 1918, resident aliens who hadn’t been naturalized were, in fact, required to register with the U.S. Marshal in the county where they lived, and provide a wealth of information including:

     • Name
     • Present residence and length of residence there
     • All other places of residence since 1914
     • Birth place and date
     • Employment since 1 January 1914
     • Emigration information
     • Names of parents and, if living, their residence
     • Family details (spouse and children)
     • Whether any male relatives were fighting for or against the United States
     • Draft registration information
     • Prior military service
     • Naturalization status
     • Criminal history
     • Physical description
     • Photograph
     • Finger- and handprints

Take William Martin Geisler5 of Lowell, Arizona, as just one example. Though he can only be located for certain on one post-war census — he was working as a logger in Oregon in 1920, living in a boarding home in Yankton, Columbia County6 — we know so much about him from his February 1918 alien registration:

     • He was born 1 May 1889 in Silesia, Germany, the son of Friedrich and Anna Geisler, both deceased.
     • He had three brothers, Rudolph, Otto and Emil, who were all in the German Army, fighting against the United States, and he himself had served in the German cavalry for five years.
     • He was 28 years old, single, 5’4″ tall and 145 pounds, with blue eyes and light brown hair, and fair complexion.
     • He emigrated to the U.S., arriving in New York on 11 June 1913, and had taken out naturalization papers on 15 November 1915 at Ann Arbor, Michigan.
     • Before moving to Arizona in 1917 to work as a miner, he’d worked as a farm hand in Michigan from 1914-1916, a farm hand in Nebraska in 1916, and a miner in Idaho in 1916-1917.7

Not all of the records of this type still exist, and the ones that do are not necessarily centralized. For example, the registration forms for San Francisco are held by the San Francisco Public Library8 and records for Minnesota can be found on microfilm at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul9 and at the Iron Range Research Center in Chisholm, Minnesota.10

So far, some 5,929 affidavits have been digitized from this series by the National Archives. You can search them using the directions found under the link for Alien Registration Affidavits, February 6, 1918 – June 28, 1918 at Archives. gov.

Say hello to Mr. Geisler when you visit…


  1. See generally World War I Remembered: The war to end all wars, BBC News, posted 10 Nov 1998 ( : accessed 15 Nov 2012).
  2. “Joint Resolution Declaring that a state of war exists between the Imperial German Government and the Government and the people of the United States and making provision to prosecute the same,” 40 Stat. 1 (1917).
  3. Presidential Proclamation 1364 of April 6, 1917, by President Woodrow Wilson declaring war against Germany, Presidential Proclamations, 1791 – 2007; General Records of the United States Government, 1778 – 2006, Record Group 11; National Archives, Washington, D.C.; digital images, ( : accessed 15 Nov 2012).
  4. Presidential Proclamation of November 16, 1917, 40 Stat. 1716 (1917).
  5. Much as The Legal Genealogist wishes that William was at least a cousin in my Geissler line, it’s unlikely. The name is a common German name — it translates as goatherd (royalty, we are not) — and there’s nothing to suggest we’re kin. Rats.
  6. 1920 U.S. census, Columbia County, Oregon, Yankton, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 105, p. 152(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 30, person; digital image, ( : accessed 15 Nov 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T625, roll 1493.
  7. Registration of Affidavit of Alien Enemy for William Martin Geisler, 7 Feb 1918; Textual Records from the U.S. District Court for the Phoenix Division of the District of Arizona (1912 – ); Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 2004, Record Group 21; National Archives, Riverside, Perris, CA; digital images, ( : accessed 15 Nov 2012).
  8. See Finding Aid to the Alien Enemy Registration Affidavits, 1918, Online Archive of California ( : accessed 15 Nov 2012).
  9. See Library / History Topics / Commission of Public Safety, Minnesota Historical Society ( : accessed 15 Nov 2012).
  10. 1918 Minnesota Alien Registration Records, Iron Range Research Center ( : accessed 15 Nov 2012).
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10 Responses to An alien notion

  1. Linda J. Walker says:

    Was this both males AND females?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      GOOD question, Linda, and yes it was. Although the original Proclamation in 1917 spoke of enemy aliens only in terms of males over age 14, and the November 1917 proclamation didn’t change that, there was a statutory change in 1918. On 16 April 1918, Congress passed “An Act To amend section four thousand and sixty-seven of the Revised Statutes by extending its scope to include women” (40 Stat. 531 (1918)) that did extend the definition to include women. A third Proclamation, dated 17 Apr 1918, then “declare(d) and proclaim(ed)” that prior rules were “hereby extended to and declared applicable to all natives, citizens, denizens or subjects of Austria-Hungary, being females of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States and not actually naturalized.”

  2. Linda J. Walker says:

    With photos!
    Wow, I definitely need to find these for western Pennsylvania!

  3. Marian says:

    Interested people should go on a organized scavenger hunt to see how many of these they can find surviving. For records that were prepared in triplicate, with one copy each filed with the federal, state, and local (county or municipal) authorities, it is amazing how few we know survive. The federal set was definitely destroyed and authority given to the states and locals to destroy their sets as well. But from the above it appears Minnesota’s state set survived, and apparently San Francisco’s municipal set. I often wonder if there are more sitting in unmarked boxes in some forgotten storage.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Kansas and Phoenix, AZ, also exist for sure. Like you, I wonder how many more are out there… and boy would I like to find ‘em…

      • Marian says:

        Yes the Kansas set was found in Topeka, the state set stored at the state capitol. When found with labels saying “alien,” the Kansans figured the records belonged to INS and shipped them to INS in Kansas City. There, the INS folks realized they weren’t theirs, so handed them over to NARA in Kansas City. There could be more state sets buried, but there could also be many county sets since there are just so many counties. Let us know what you find, Judy!

  4. Anne Willson says:

    OOHHH! I need these! My family all converges in the US about 1900…I’m scavenging!

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