|by Donna Przecha|
Since many ancestors of Americans were foreign born, naturalization records are another a source of genealogical information that you might want to investigate. Naturalization is the process through which a foreign born person becomes a citizen of the United States and is eligible to vote.
Not all immigrants became citizens as it is not required. Many obtained their citizenship because of pride in their new country and a desire to participate in democratic elections, a privilege perhaps not accorded to them in their country of birth. Others became citizens for more materialistic reasons, such as the right to acquire free land through homesteading. During times of war, there was often hostility towards people from the enemy country and immigrants may have obtained citizenship to show their loyalty to the U.S., especially if they had children serving in the U.S. military.
Was Your Ancestor Naturalized?
Before beginning a search for a naturalization record, it may save hours of futile research if you try to determine if there is evidence that the individual you are researching did become a citizen. There are several ways to do this:
What Is the Procedure?
By now you might be getting the idea that naturalization documents are not necessarily as easy to use as some other records, such as the census. Generally, for most of our history there are two rules that apply to naturalizations:
The procedures and requirements differed greatly depending on the location and the time period. The first important information the researcher needs to establish is whether the naturalization was before 1906 or afterwards. In 1906 the naturalization process was simplified and taken over by the federal government. It is much easier to find out where to look and what to expect if it took place after 1906.
Where are Records Located?
Prior to 1906, naturalization could take place in any court having common law jurisdiction. The court could be federal, state, or local and be called by many names circuit, supreme, civil, equity, district, common pleas, chancery, superior. In some cases a municipal, police, criminal, or probate court did not actually have the right to handle naturalization but they issued certificates anyway. Prior to 1905, over 5,000 courts had been handling naturalization. By 1908 that number was reduced to just over 2,000 courts and the Department of Labor began issuing A Directory of Courts Having Jurisdiction in Naturalization Proceedings. This directory, available on microfilm through the Family History Library, can help you determine which court your ancestor may have used. Naturalizations can now be handled in either federal or local courts. Since 1929, most naturalizations have been at federal courts, but earlier records are more likely to be at a local court because it was closer to the individual.
Prior to 1906, the biggest problem confronting a researcher is where to find the record. The two procedures did not have to take place in the same court so the immigrant could have filed a Declaration soon after his arrival in New York, or perhaps he lived in Ohio for a while and filed his Declaration there, hoping to qualify for free land. Then, after settling on land in South Dakota, he may have submitted his Petition to a local court. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of many pre-1930 records. If your ancestor lived in an urban area, there are many rolls of films relating to Chicago (1871-1930), New York (1792-1906), Philadelphia (1793-1911) and New England (1791-1906).
The good news is that copies of all naturalization records from 1906 to 1956 are at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, DC. This does not guarantee success though. Since you are dealing with a government agency, be prepared for a long wait. I had a copy of one certificate of citizenship which gave the court, location, date, and name of the immigrant, but the INS was never able to locate the file. You may also be able to obtain copies of the file from the court, but some courts will refer you to INS in Washington.
Naturalizations after 1956 are kept at the local INS office. Some records are being transferred to National Archives branches or state archives. See their page "Naturalization Records" for information about records at the National Archives.
What Do the Records Contain?
In 1906, the process was standardized and uniform forms were issued. The forms have been revised periodically, but generally contain at least the following information:
Prior to 1906
There is no predicting what you might find in naturalization papers prior to 1906. Until 1828, the immigrant had to report to a court to register. This report was supposed to contain information on the birthplace, age, and nationality. These alien registry books were separate volumes in many areas, especially in the northeast. The registry may be found in later records combined with the Declaration. After 1911, the immigrant was issued a certificate of arrival.
A Declaration of Intention was usually required, again with exceptions. It may contain little more than the name of the immigrant, but may also have some of the details incorporated in the post-1906 form described above. These are also called "first papers."
Early Petitions are part of the court record and may even be recorded in separate ledgers called "second papers" or "final record." Information varies greatly. Certificates of Naturalization were given to the new citizen. The information was recorded but duplicates of the certificate were not kept on file.
Spouses and children may derive their citizenship from their husband/father and not have to go through the procedure themselves. Up until 1922, a foreign born woman who married an American citizen became naturalized upon marriage or, if her husband was foreign born, when he became a citizen. No separate filings were required. Prior to 1906, they usually were not even mentioned in the husband's petition.
After 1922, a woman had to be naturalized on her own. However, from 1907 to 1922, if a woman married an unnaturalized alien, she took his citizenship. This created one particularly bizarre situation for a woman who was born in Poland in September 1901. In November of that same year she came to the U.S. with her parents. Her father obtained citizenship in 1906 and she automatically became a citizen as well. In 1918 she married a man who had immigrated from Russia in 1913, but was not yet a citizen. She lost her citizenship because of this rule. In November 1922, her husband became a citizen. This did not help her because on September 22, 1922, the law was changed to say that any alien woman who married an American does not become a U.S. citizen automatically. She applied on her own and again became a U.S. citizen in 1942!
Children under the age of 21 automatically become citizens by the naturalization of a parent. However, there are many exceptions to this law regarding residence, whether or not a Declaration is required, what happens if the parent dies or becomes insane, adopted children, illegitimate children, step-children, and children born abroad.
Obtaining citizenship generally has been made easier for aliens who served in the U.S. military. Filing of the Declaration of Intention was often not required and the period of residency eliminated or reduced. However, in 1894 the law was changed and during times of peace no one (except Indians) could serve in the military unless he or she was a U.S. citizen or had filed a Declaration of Intention. Aliens were allowed to serve during times of war and to become naturalized.
Some states had laws forbidding aliens from owning land unless they had filed a declaration. Homesteaders were able to qualify for free public land after filing the declaration. The National Archives has homestead records prior to May 1, 1908 and Bureau of Land Management after that date. BLM can be accessed at http://www-a.blm.gov/nhp/main/foia/filinginfo.html.
Obstacles to Research
Besides identifying the court (or courts) that handled the various steps in the procedure, there are other pitfalls. Some immigrants filed the Declaration, perhaps for homesteading, but did not follow through with the final papers. If they could vote and obtain land with the Declaration only, they had no need to complete the process. Others were allowed to skip the declaration and only had to file the final petition. In addition, fraud occurred on a large scale. Thousands of fraudulent certificates were issued in 1868 in New York because votes were needed in an election. These certificates had no court records documenting the citizenship. If you cannot locate the naturalization record in the court where it was supposed to have occurred, your ancestor may have had a fraudulent certificate.
For further information, see the National Archives and Records Administration "Naturalization Records" page; the LDS Research Outline on the U.S. (p. 38-41) and the excellent 43-page booklet American Naturalization Processes and Procedures 1790-1985 by John J. Newman (Indianapolis: Family History Section, Indiana Historical Society 1985).
About the Author
I began genealogy in 1970 when we were living in Ogden, Utah for a short time. I was immediately hooked when, on my first visit to the local Family History Center, I found my great-grandparents in the 1850 Ohio census. I have been researching ever since on my own family and for others. I soon recognized the value of computer programs for keeping track of the data. I was a founding member of the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego and editor of the newsletter. I have written a third party manual on ROOTS III and, with Joan Lowrey, authored two guides to genealogy software. Using ROOTS III and WordPerfect, I have written several family history books for others, but have yet to stop researching long enough to complete my own family history!