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Documenting Doughboys

Researching at the National Archives

By Constance Potter

"There is properly no history, only biography." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

NARA researchers 500Researchers at NARA in Washington, DC.One of the best places to start your research into records relating to service in World War I is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which holds the permanently valuable records of the Federal government. Many people rely solely on subscription-based websites such as and Fold3, and free websites such as Family Search. While these websites provide access to useful records such as Federal census records, passenger arrival records, and many records relating to wars from the American Revolution to World War I, not all Federal, state, and local records have been digitized.

NARA seattle mNARA facility in Seattle, WA.Conducting research at a large national institution such as NARA can seem daunting. The National Archives, with headquarters in the Washington D.C. area, has facilities across the country.NARA DCNARA in Washington, DC

The National Archives in Washington, DC, holds census, immigration, public land, and Bureau of Indian Affairs records plus Army records from the American Revolution and up to approximately 1912, and Navy records up to December 1941.

Read more: Researching at the National Archives

The 1973 Fire at NPRC St. Louis and WWI Service Records

By Constance Potter

"In terms of size and impact--the number of records destroyed and the number of persons affected--none of the earlier fires equaled the disaster of July 12, 1973, at the National Personnel Records Center." -- Walter W. Stender and Evans Walker, writing in The American Archivist, Volume 37, Number 4

220px NARAfireOn July 12, 1973, the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO, suffered a massive fire that destroyed approximately 16-18 million official military personnel records, one-third of the records. Among the records destroyed were 80% of U.S. Army personnel discharged November 1, 1912, to January 1, 1960, which includes those for World War I.

Read more: A Fire in St. Louis in 1973

Getting started with WWI genealogical research

By Constance Potter

"Retreat? Hell, we just got here!" -- U.S. Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams at Lucy-le-Bocage on June 1, 1918.

WWI diaryResearching the military service of your family members in World War I can appear to be a daunting challenge at first.  In 1973 a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO, destroyed most of the Army service records for the years that included service in World War I. Despite the destruction of those records, there are alternative records that can provide information about service during the Great War. Many of these records are held at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

This is the first of a series of articles that will describe many of those records and help you find the information you want on your World War I service member.

But just as soldiers go to training before they go to fight, your search for records will be more skillful and efficient if you do some basic things before marching off to start your search.

Read more: Genealogy Column: Getting Started Documenting Your Doughboy

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