Aliens Among Us: Davenport’s German Immigrants and the Alien Enemy Registration Act of February 1918

One hundred years ago, in January of 1918, life during wartime was changing daily for local residents. A stream of federal and state government regulations arrived in Davenport and Scott County. Local officials began preparing for the registration of German alien enemies,* as directed by President Woodrow Wilson’s November 19, 1917 proclamation. This would have a tremendous impact on the German immigrant population in the area.

Many German-born local residents had, in fact, already registered with the U.S. Deputy Marshal when war was declared in the spring of 1917.  At that point, it became illegal for alien enemies to be within a half-mile of a military installation or a factory producing supplies for the war. For those German nationals who were employed at the Bettendorf factory, the Davenport Locomotive Works, Sears Saddlery Co., Western Flour Mills, Phoenix Milling Company, the local armory, or the Rock Island Arsenal, a special permit was required in order for them to continue working.

The Daily Times, June 1, 1917. Pg. 7.

The half-mile rule also meant the local bridge connecting Davenport to Rock Island was off-limits to any German national without a permit, as the bridge ran through land belonging to the Rock Island Arsenal. Permits, once approved, were to be carried at all times and presented upon demand.

Local officials soon learned that the November 1917 Presidential Proclamation would require any German male citizen aged 14 years and older to register at his local police station if he lived inside the Davenport city limits; and with the local postmaster if he lived in Scott County. This included any German male who had already received a permit to be within a half-mile of a military-related business or installation.

In the weeks leading up to registration, confusion reigned. Letters arrived from the government indicating that the Davenport Police Department would be the single registration location. Then, fearing an overload of applicants, the location was switched back to the city police stations and country postmasters. How many photographs registrants were required to submit, and on what type of paper, was another subject of dispute. There were rumors, later proven false, that registrants would be charged money to apply for alien enemy status. Another rumor in circulation at the time, also false, was that property owned by German citizens would be confiscated by the local government.

Davenport Mayor John Berwald worked with local officials to determine which pieces of information were correct. The Davenport newspapers reported daily on the changes.

On January 17, 1918, the Davenport Democrat and Leader announced that alien enemy registration would be held fromFebruary 4th to the 9th. Failure to register would mean prosecution by federal authorities. Registrants would be fingerprinted and asked to provide four unmounted, 3×3-inch photographs of themselves. Applicants were prohibited from moving to a different area during the registration process. Once a registration booklet was issued, the alien enemy was required to carry it with him at all times. If he wished to move after registering, he would have to apply in writing to the local U.S. Marshal for permission.

The Daily Times, January 30, 1918. Pg. 7

Although registration did begin on February 4, 1918, the large numbers of German citizens applying all across the country forced the federal government to extend the registration period through February 13th. The names of the registered alien enemies in the Davenport area were printed in the local newspapers.

This list included those German immigrants who had not applied for naturalization, as well as those whose naturalization applications were in process when war was declared. A surprising number of area residents who immigrated from Germany as young children were forced to register as alien enemies because they did not have their fathers’ naturalization papers to prove they were U.S. citizens. Most were registered to vote, some had held local public offices, and one was even serving on the draft board until it was discovered he did not have the necessary proof of citizenship!

The Daily Times, February 11, 1918. Pg. 8.

In the end, 250 males registered in Scott County as German alien enemies. Approved registration booklets were delivered to the point of registration about 2 weeks later. Recipients were instructed to carry them at all times.**

Another registration was held in April of 1918 for women who held German citizenship. That registration created a new set of questions for the government: What was a woman’s status if she was married to a citizen? What was it if her husband had served in the military?

As the winter of 1918 turned into spring, new regulations and registrations would visit the area home front as more local men set off to serve in the Great War.

Check back here on our blog to find out more about the experiences of Davenport and Scott County residents during World War I!

_________________________________________________

*Individuals of German birth living in the United States who had not become naturalized citizens of this country. This only included citizens of the German Empire. It did not include citizens of countries that were allies of Germany.

**Draft registrants during this time were also instructed to carry their card with them at all times.

(posted by Amy D.)

__________________________________________________

Sources:

  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, May 31, 1917. Pg. 13.
  • The Daily Times, May 28, 1917. Pg. 7.
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, November 21, 1917. Pg. 14.
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, January 3, 1918. Pg. 15.
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, January 17, 1918. Pg. 10.
  • The Daily Times, January 18, 1918. Pg. 8.
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, January 21, 1918. Pg. 8.
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, January 22, 1918. Pg. 15.
  • The Daily Times, January 23, 1918. Pg. 9.
  • The Daily Times, January 30, 1918. Pg. 14.
  • The Daily Times, February 9, 1918. Pg. 18.
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, February 12, 1918. Pg. 11.
  • The Davenport Democrat and Leader, February 14, 1918. Pg. 13.

This entry was posted in Local History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.