Soldier William Dumas of Wilcox Co., Alabama, died between 8 March and 15 November 1918 while at Camp McClennan, AL. His family sent in the picture above and filled out a biographical questionnaire about his life.
But that wasn’t the only picture they sent. They also submitted this:
The letter enclosed with the photo describes it as showing “his family of 6 generations only one has deceased since he has his great-grandmother Nancy Wright at 100 years of age.”
Wouldn’t Dumas descendants today love to have that?
His biographical form, which appears to have been completed by his mother, provided not just the names of his parents, both also their parents, who were from North Carolina. His father, William Dumas Sr., had been enslaved and the form provides his birth date:
This Memorial Day, to celebrate and remember all those who died in America’s wars I’m going to do a long post about the hidden treasures within the World War I records that some states compiled.
With the destruction of most of the Army’s personnel files from World War I, it can be hard to find more information about our ancestors who served in that war.
In the past at Reclaiming Kin, I have discussed my research into my great-grandfather’s WWI service using NARA’s records, and I’ve also written about using the military draft registration cards.
Though not widely known, many states collected information about WWI soldiers in one form or another. Some states published the information in book form, while others collected questionnaires.
These files may even contain a photographs as shown above, and original letters from family members. Poignantly, some contain a copy of the telegram that notified the family of the death of their loved one.
Even if you don’t directly descend from these individuals, some of these men were from families you may be researching.
A few states have compiled this information into online databases. Tennessee and Alabama have some of the best online collections, and the National World War I Museum and Memorial has a comprehensive list of these sites listed by state.
Examine closely what each collection contains since there is a great variety. Let’s look at some of the genealogical gems in these files.
Gold Star Records
Some of these records, often found at state archives, are referred to as Gold Star records. “Gold Star” was a reference to the service flags displayed by families in their memory. The Tennessee State Archives’ website states:
The gold star quickly became a national symbol of mourning and patriotic pride as fierce fighting and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 claimed more American lives than any conflict in living memory since the Civil War. After peace was won, Americans incorporated the gold star in their commemorative efforts at home and abroad. They erected monuments, established cemeteries, and launched state-based historical projects, including the Tennessee World War I Gold Star Records.
Tennessee’s Gold Star records can be accessed at this link. Most of the files are downloadable, and African-American soldier’s files are grouped together. The photos included in some files are stunning. Note that Tennessee has other databases containing information on WWI soldiers and this is not a comprehensive list of all Tennesseans who served.
Many of the files include the names of the parents of the deceased and of other family members. Only some files contained a photograph but even those files contained good information.
From Tennessee’s records, my collateral ancestor James Edward King, did not have a picture, but a letter from his mother contained precious names and addresses of surviving relatives:
From Davidson County, John S. Hart’s file did not include a picture either, but it did include what was probably one of he last letters he wrote to his mother. I just love how he requested that she send her “fried chitlings, fried sausages, sweet potato custard, biscuits and cornbread.” He lived only about two more months after this letter:
Howard Luther Booker, born in Sharkey Co., Miss., proudly sent a picture of himself home to his mother Ida, then living in Tennessee. He died in France on 13 Jan 1919. Ida also shared a picture of his grave in France:
Wilkins Stonewall Jackson Banks, from Coffee County, Tennessee, appears in the photo below beaming with pride:
His file included a copy of the telegram notifying his parents of his death:
Nathan Walter Gurley’s mother, of Hardemen County, Tennessee, submitted this handsome picture of her son:
Parents and other relatives were named in the file:
If named as beneficiaries, family members could receive the $10,000 insurance as noted in Walter’s file:
Ralph Newman Bartlett was from Roane County, Tennessee:
His descendants are in for a real treat–his file contains 32 pages of information including several letters from him:
From Williamson County, Richard Allen Fly’s picture came with an interesting comment from his mother to “please don’t have that girl there with him.”
His Gold Star form includes his parents names:
Sadly, like Richard, many of these soldiers served only a few weeks before their death. These men had the great misfortune to serve during the flu pandemic (which struck in three waves). Its earliest cases in the US were among WWI soldiers.
Alabama’s Gold Star Records
Alabama’s Gold Star records are located at the Alabama State Archives website. Using Browse, the results can be filtered on the left hand side of the screen by name, race, county, branch and home town. Download the actual PDF, which may include more images than shown. The Alabama files are accessible from Ancestry.
From Hale County, Columbus Burrough’s file includes his picture:
His biographical form includes the names of Columbus’ parents (his father was a Presiding Elder in the church), his mother’s maiden name, and the names of his mother’s parents.
There is also something else quite extraordinary in his biography. This is the text of the bottom of the form:
“His father Caleb Burrough was a farmer and owned his own farm. and he was first a slave & his marster was Kirt Rosser from which Caleb was his Hack Driver. They settled in Tuscaloosa Co. where he worked as a slave until the surrender. after that he move Down in Greensboro Hale Co. with his father William Burrough. he married Ellar Harris. Her morther Nancy Harris. came from V.A. with the Hamerton [?] family and settled in Tuscaloosa County.”
That’s right: this document pushes far back into the enslaved roots of the Burroughs family. That is why thorough post-emancipation research is a key step in finding the last enslaver. A document might just state his name. The form explains that Columbus was very well-educated and even names one of his teachers:
Another section tells us he was Assistant Superintendent of Sunday Schools:
As the son of the Presiding Elder (the Methodist church) Columbus served his church proudly:
Robert Lee Bullard, of Lee County, had a photograph:
His family sent in 7 pages of typed family history:
Take a look at these collections this Memorial Day. These pictures, files, letters and other memorabilia can help us to tell the story of our family more completely.
They also remind us that each person who died left a family behind who loved them.
Note: For those interested in better understanding the role of African American soldiers in World War I, take a listen to this talk by Chad Williams. He is the author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African Americans and World War I.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.