08 August 2012

REDEUX: Enemy Alien in the House

My 2nd great grandfather is John Fred Borgstadter.  He was born 20 August 1853 in Germany.  One record says Hitzenhausen another says Hanover.  He came to the U.S. sometime between 1870 and 1873 depending on the record consulted. His obituary states that he came to the US in 1872.   In 1900 census states he immigrated 1872.  In 1910 census states immigrated 1871.  In 1920 census states he immigrated 1873.  Too many conflicting records - I began the hunt to straighten this out.

Searching passenger lists was becoming a nightmare.  Of course there was no one with the name Borgstadter and the number of variants was staggering.  So I decided to try another route. Fred Borgstadter married Elizabeth Hobrock on 24 March 1881 in Beardstown, Cass County, Illinois so I started a search in the Cass County courthouse.

I found a Declaration of Intent sworn out by Fred Borgstadter to become a U.S. citizen filed in the Circuit Court of Cass County located in Virginia, Illinois. It is dated 12 February 1880 and he paid a fee of 50 cents to file it.  This was the only record they had for him.

Well I knew that in the Fall of 1886, The Borgstadter family moved to Elkhorn Township, Lincoln County, Kansas.  Maybe he continued with the naturalization process in the courts there.  So you can imagine how surprised I was when I came across an index that listed Fred as an "Enemy Alien."

After World War I started, non-naturalized "Enemy Aliens" were required to register with United States authorities as a national security measure. A presidential proclamation of 16 November 1917 required all males who were natives, citizens, denizens or subjects of the German Empire age 14 and older who were within the United States to register as alien enemies. 

An act of Congress of 16 April 1918 changed the definition of “alien enemy” to include women age 14 and older,  that INCLUDED those women of American birth that were married to enemy aliens. Under the Expatriation Act of 2 March 1907, upon marriage, women acquired their husband's nationality and lost their own.

On 25 January 1918, all German aliens were given five days to register. Registration occurred at Police stations or in small towns at the Post Office. Filing first citizenship papers was not sufficient grounds for not registering.  The actual registration was conducted by various marshals, in some cases the chief of police designated by the regulations. Each “alien enemy” was issued a registration card, which he was required to have on his person at all times. The “alien enemy” also needed permission from the local registrar to travel or change place of residence. 

Well this answered my question about Fred Borgstadter's quest to become a naturalized citizen.  He filed his first papers but obviously never followed through with the process.  I'll probably never know the reason.  I can only imagine that like most of us, life happened and time got away from him.

What did it mean to be an "Enemy Alien" at that time?

When United States President Woodrow Wilson declared war, essentially two American battles broke out against Germany: one militarily in Europe and the other culturally in the United States. Twenty-six states passed laws against the use of  the German language on the streets, via telephone, or in public meetings. Libraries eliminated German materials. Public schools removed all German language instruction from their curriculum. 

Buildings, towns, streets, foods—anything considered German was stripped of its ties to the fatherland and renamed to denounce Germany. Sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage, and frankfurters were called  hot dogs. Chicago’s Bismarck Hotel changed its name to the Hotel Randolph as a demonstration of patriotism.

Mary Elizabeth Hobrock Borgstadter

I can't begin to imagine how my 2nd great grandmother must have felt when she was told that because her husband was not a naturalized citizen, they both were considered "Enemy Aliens." It was as if she were being arrested. They took her picture and her fingerprints. Registering meant filling out an eight page form and answering personal questions asked by a complete stranger. An intimidating stranger at that - a U.S. Marshall .

Fred Borgstadter 

After I had found their names in the index, I ordered each file from NARA.  I remember being so excited for their arrival because the questions asked of the registrant would finally give me answers to the questions I had about Fred Borgstadter.  And knowing  that he that actually answered the questions himself  - icing on the cake.  I was in for a bit of a let-down.

The key questions asked of Fred:

Where and when were you born?  "Hitzenhausen, Germany  on 20 August 1853" 

When and where did you enter the United States?  "I arrived in September 1873 at the port of New York.  I do not remember the name of the ship."

What is the name of your father?    "I do not know."
What is the name of your mother? " I do not know."
Do you have any living relatives in the country of your birth?  "No."

He doesn't know who his parents were? Well it is possible he was an orphan  He doesn't remember the name of the ship that brought him to America? Although he appears to be much older than 65 (his age in 1918 - see his photo above) I don't think senility is the reason for his answers.  I thought I would have the right date and place of birth, but taking into consideration his answers for the other questions, I am not certain.  

Even though I didn't get the information I wanted from these records, they did have some priceless gems - Their photograph, their signature and their fingerprints.  How many of you can say you have your ancestor's fingerprints and they weren't convicts?  Hmmmm?

While these records are a boon to the genealogist, the bad news is that very nearly all have been destroyed. Below are a few of the remaining records:

U.S. District Court, Phoenix Division,

Fort Wayne, Allen County, Indiana

St. Paul, Minnesota


  1. What a sobering review of that episode in our country's history. I find that incredible, too, that he couldn't remember his parents' names. Wonder if that wasn't his way of being just a little defiant in the face of such intrusiveness. Wonder how different it would have been for him if he had just gone ahead and finished filing those papers...

  2. Sherri, that was fascinating. I did not know about the enemy alien records. These are priceless records even if they did nor provide the answers you sought.

  3. Jacqi and Johann - Until you both brought it up, it didn't occur to me that his non-answers were an act of defiance. By 1917 Fred had been in the U.S. for about 40 years. He probably was more than a little pissed off that he was being treated in this manner. At the time, I'm sure that he wasn't thinking of me - his 2nd great granddaughter and how hard he is making it for me to research his life before he came to America. LOL

  4. Melody - I am so glad to see you back and actively blogging again!

  5. Very interesting. Gives me a whole different avenue to pursue on my Foss family in Madison WI --- so many unanswered questions and brick walls.

  6. Very interesting. Gives me a whole different avenue to pursue on my Foss family in Madison WI --- so many unanswered questions and brick walls.

  7. Thank you, Melody. My father's cousin told me that both my great-grandfather and great-grandmother had to register as enemy aliens when WWI broke out. Your post makes the process so real! They were both in their mid-60's. It is easy to understand why they took the picture of Kaiser Wilhelm that had been hanging on their wall and hid it in the woodshed.

  8. Kathy - I'm so glad you enjoyed the post however I am Sheri - Sheri Fenley - not Melody. LOL

  9. Oops, so sorry Shari. Since laughter is good for the immune system, all is not lost.