For immigrants who arrived in the 1890s or later, modern naturalization records can be the best documentation of their foreign home. Sometimes ship passenger lists are missing, or immigrants are difficult to locate or recognize on the arrival lists. However, naturalizations that took place after 1906 are not difficult to find and, with them, you can fully identify the immigrant and the family. This assures you that, once you find a record, you can be certain whether it pertains to the correct family or not.
This lesson only discusses naturalization records created after 1906. A future lesson will cover the information found, and search procedures for earlier naturalization records.
However, before you begin searching for these records, we need to cover a few basics, such as when and how they were created, as well as who you are likely to find in the records. Of course, you will want to know the content of these records, for, as you will read below, their content is every researcher's dream!
Brief History of Naturalization
The Constitution of the United States gives Congress the power "to establish a uniform rule of naturalization" (Article I, Section 8), and Congress wasted little time in making such laws. The first federal naturalization law was passed in 1790, and then modified in 1795 and 1798. A new law in 1802 established the basic guidelines that were in effect until 1952.
The major requirements of this law were that an applicant reside five years in the United States and one year in the state, and have filed a Declaration of Intent at least three years before admission as a citizen. The applicant was to be of good moral character, take an oath of allegiance, renounce any title of nobility, and forswear allegiance to any reigning foreign sovereign.
Congress provided that any court could naturalize if it had:
- common law jurisdiction
- a seal
- a clerk (or prothonotary)
- kept a record of its proceedings
In practice, most states determined which of their courts could exercise this authority and commonly there was one court designated in a county to handle naturalization procedures. However, that court could be the circuit, district, common pleas, chancery, probate, superior or any other court so designated.
In areas with many immigrants, such as New York City, many different courts were allowed to naturalize. Of course, federal courts also met the broad criteria established by Congress, and they often performed this function.
By the end of the 1800s, the naturalization process was being misused, and even abused in some localities. After extensive investigation, Congress passed changes to the naturalization procedures in 1906, creating a federal agency to oversee the process.
The 1906 creation of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was to provide for a uniform rule for the naturalization of aliens throughout the country. This new agency decided to pursue this objective through the use of administrative rules, including the caveat that naturalizations must be done on the blank forms and records provided exclusively from the Bureau. With this simple procedure, the Bureau determined which courts were permitted to naturalize immigrants.
That oversight proved effective. The 1905 Presidential Commission on Naturalization found that 5,160 courts were, or had, been naturalizing aliens. By 1908, only 2,244 courts were authorized. A useful listing of those courts, is A Directory of Courts Having Jurisdiction in Naturalization Proceedings issued by the Justice Department in 1963. This directory indicates the status (active, inactive, never active, etc.) and indicates which courts assumed jurisdiction for those no longer naturalizing.
Over time, the control shifted to the federal courts, and fewer state courts were permitted to naturalize, especially after 1929. However, even after this date some state courts were permitted to naturalize, while some federal courts never exercised the jurisdiction.
As you can see, it is very possible that an immigrant could have been a citizen, without any documentary evidence. On the other hand, the naturalization applications since 1906 have required the names and birth information of the wife and children of the applicants.
The focus of research should be on determining which ancestor (usually a male, head of family) actually went through the process, as the records will be in his name.
In some situations, there may be separate documents available related to the other family members. For example, my father arrived as a minor and later claimed derivative citizenship based on his widowed mother's naturalization, which took place when he was 20 1/2 years old (and therefore still a minor).
In order to document his citizenship status, he filed an "Application for Certificate of Derivative Citizenship" in the 1940s with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. While such documents were not required, and not even created until 1929, they provide excellent detail about his and his parents' births, immigration information (including related travelers and to whom they were coming), a physical description, and even his then current employment.
Content of Modern Records
Since the naturalization process consisted of two major steps -- the Declaration of Intent and the Petition for Naturalization -- there are three significant documents for the post-1906 naturalization. These are the same three documents that have existed since at least 1802 but, since 1906, they have been standardized and contain much more information.
Declaration of Intent
The process required that the applicant first fill out a "Declaration of Intention" to become a citizen. In addition to identifying the court receiving the Declaration, as well as the applicant by age and physical description, this record includes the following information:
After 1929, the following additional information was required:
- Date and place of birth
- Current residence
- Port of departure and name of vessel
- Last foreign residence
- Previous country of allegiance
- Date and port of arrival
- Marriage date and place
- Spouse's name
- Spouse's birth date and place
- Names of children, with birth date and place and current residence
Importance of the Records
A review of the content of these three forms shows that they include the very information that virtually any researcher would want about an immigrant. However, be aware that sometimes the forms are not completed fully and, sometimes, the information could be in error.
An immigrant may not remember exactly when he or she arrived (although arrivals after 1906 received a certificate of arrival that was presented to the court when the Declaration of Intent was filed), or a nearby large city or last residence may be named as the birth place. Generally however, the information on these records has proven to be quite correct. Clearly, an immigrant did not want to risk being denied citizenship by providing false information.
One of the first concerns one has who is researching naturalization records is to determine if and when an ancestor naturalized. The really good news is that, if the naturalization occurred after September 1906, then a wonderful document is probably available, full of significant immigration information, just waiting for the researcher to find it.
So, where to begin?
State Court Records
Once you have learned that an immigrant was naturalized after 1906, your goal becomes obtaining the naturalization documents.
- Begin by searching indices for the courts where the immigrant lived the majority of his adult life.
- Start with the local courts, unless the naturalization took place after about 1930. Generally they are easier to search, and should have local indices.
- You will usually find records of state courts at one of three locations:
- the court itself often still has the records
- the state archives (or historical society) may have obtained them.
- the Family History Library and its system of Family History Centers has many state court naturalization records available on microfilm.
For a useful overview of most county/state court records, see the book by Christina Schaefer described later in this lesson.
Federal Court Records
- You will also want to check the records of federal courts.Determine the federal court which had jurisdiction for the area where the immigrant lived.
- Contact that court to learn if they still have the naturalization records, and if they have maintained an index.
- Many federal court records have been gathered to the National Archives Field Offices, so you may need to write to the regional archives, or travel there.
- Many of those records have also been microfilmed by the Family History Library as well.
The WPA created several indices to naturalization records during the 1930s. Often these include pre- and post-1906 naturalizations, and may include state as well as federal records. These indices often coincide with the jurisdiction of the regional branches of the National Archives so, for example, the Boston area archives has an excellent index to New England naturalizations.
In fact, the Family History Library has the best collection of naturalization records in the county. Most of the films they have made of federal records simply are not available at or through the National Archives (although copies will be at the regional archives where the filming was done). Therefore, a trip to your local Family History Center may be one of the best places to begin your search. Examine the Family History Library Catalog for the localities of interest under the heading "Naturalization and Citizenship."
We should also mention that the Immigration and Naturalization Service maintains an index to (allegedly) all naturalizations in the country since 1906. You can contact them at 425 I Street NW, Washington, DC 20536 to learn of their fees, conditions, and forms for requesting a search of their index.
Note, however, that most researchers generally prefer to search for themselves, rather than trusting someone else who may not find the immigrant in a massive card file.
For Further Study
Many of the facts cited above come from a brief booklet by John J. Newman, American Naturalization Processes and Procedures, 1790-1985. Published by the Family History Section of the Indiana Historical Society in 1985, it is now available from Heritage Quest (Bountiful, Utah).
Recently, two important new books about immigration have been published. Christina K. Schaefer's Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997) provides a brief overview of the naturalization process, but is generally a listing, county by county, of where the appropriate records are available. Based heavily on the Family History Library Catalog, it does miss some counties where records are known to exist, but have not been gathered to an archive, or made available on microfilm.
They Became Americans by Loretto Dennis Szucs (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998) is an extensive discussion about "how to discover your family or ancestors in naturalization records." It explains the methods and techniques needed to overcome the often difficult and confusing naturalization records of the various courts.
Thoroughly illustrated, it covers records in the Colonial Period, 1790 to 1906 records, and post-1906 records. It discusses where to search for naturalization documents, including state and local courts as well as federal courts and the National Archives, but it does not list holdings as does Schaefer's book.
By now you should be excited to locate a naturalization record for an immigrant ancestor. Review your list of ancestors, and determine if any of them arrived recently, and may have naturalized after 1906. Determine the court(s) where they lived, and seek their record. Regardless of what you now know, you will learn even more once you read those naturalization papers.