Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group
While doing historical research, Gilbert Tauber, member of the planning committee of the BNHG, came across a surprising document in the New York County Clerk's office. In this article he notes the significance of the long overlooked 1917 New York Military Census and its possibilities for further research.
Earlier this year, while doing some research at the New York County Clerk’s office, I noticed a stack of large-format volumes bound in bright red cloth. I learned that they were records from a statewide military census that was conducted in June 1917
The volumes consisted of bound, typewritten ledger sheets listing names, addresses, ages, occupations, marital status, and much other information for most of the adult male population of Manhattan. According to the Bruce Abrams, the longtime archivist there, these volumes have never been published or digitized. (They are also difficult to search in their present form because they are alphabetized only by the first letter of the last name.) Although I have been doing historical research on NYC for many years, I had never heard of this census. It piqued my interest because my father had fought in World War I as a member of New York’s 77th Division
Looking into the New York Times online archives, I learned that the 1917 Military Census had included all New York State residents between the ages of 16 and 50, both men and women. The questions asked went far beyond those of the Federal census, including citizenship; any previous military experience; responsibilities for care of dependents; and any special skills of potential use to the war effort, such as nursing, the ability to type, drive a motor vehicle, or pilot an airplane. The questionnaires were slightly different for men and women. Upstate, the census was conducted through a house-to-house survey. In New York City, the authorities set up hundreds of census stations where people could come to fill out their questionnaires. The stations were largely staffed by volunteers, mainly women, from such organizations as the YWCA, the National League for Women’s Service and the Young Women’s Hebrew Association. It appears that the census was successful in reaching all but a tiny percentage of its target population.
A long article about the military census, including a complete list of the report questions, was published in the Times’ edition of June 10, 1917. I found useful additional information in NY Times articles of May 12, June 9, June 16, June 17 and August 7.
I also found online a report of the military census that was later submitted to the Governor: https://archive.org/stream/newyorkstatemili00newy#page/n93/mode/2up. It gives only a brief presentation of the Census results, but a very interesting and detailed description of how the Census was carried out and how results were tabulated.
It is likely that partial results of the 1917 Military Census, comparable to those that I saw for Manhattan, survive in other County Clerk’s Offices or similar local archives in New York State.
Subsequently, I wrote to the New York State Archives to see if they had any further information. Part of their reply is copied below. It indicates that the 5.5 million original census forms were lost--apparently discarded-- in 1923 when the State vacated the arsenal in which they were stored.
“New York State prepared for involvement in World War I by conducting a military census and an inventory of resources useful for the war effort, as authorized by Laws of 1917, Chap. 103, 369, 409, and 777. The state also registered citizens or subjects of foreign countries (Germany and Austria-Hungary) with which the U.S. was at war, pursuant to Laws of 1917, Chap. 159.
“The procedures, progress, and accomplishments of the military census are described in a published report to Governor Charles S. Whitman, The New York State Military Census and Inventory(Albany: 1918). This report is available in the New York State Library, and it can be accessed in electronic format through the Library’s online catalog at http://www.nysl.nysed.gov The report contains copies of the registration forms for both men and women, aged 16-50 inclusive.
“The registration period was in June 1917. The completed registration forms were sent from each county to a central processing office in New York City. They totaled about 5.5 million forms. After the forms were analyzed and statistical data was tabulated, the forms were stored in a National Guard arsenal located at 7th Avenue and 35th Street. That facility was vacated by the state in 1923. No further information on the disposition of the forms is available. The authorizing statutes did not require that the military census and alien registration records be permanently preserved.
“The New York State Archives holds no World War I military census records or alien registration records. Nor are such records held by the New York Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.”
The records of the 1917 Military Census in the County Clerk’s office are a potentially valuable source for genealogists, especially if they were digitized, alphabetized, and searchable.
The story of that census is of particular interest today not only because of the upcoming centenary of the World War I Armistice, but also (1) because of the ongoing controversy about questions on the 2020 Federal Census; and (2) because it reflected a degree of civil cohesion and trust in government that would be unthinkable in today’s political climate.