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Overheard on the Message Boards: Finding Naturalization Papers
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

March 13, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I've tried the mid-Atlantic National Archives and the Philadelphia Archives but haven't been able to find my great-grandfather's name to get his naturalization papers. They found people who share his surname but nobody named Jacob. I got the year from the census and he always used the same spelling. I know the LDS has an index film you can order, has anyone seen them? I was wondering if it is strictly by name or if there is other information so you can be sure you have the right person? He arrived in 1884 but I haven't been able to verify his location until Philadelphia, 1900. He had a child born in Pennsylvania in 1886(the year his wife arrived). Is there a Pennsylvania state index I could search or do you have to go through each county? The year could be off but NARA/Philadelphia archives both go up to 1930. Appreciate any help and suggestions. -- Kristie

A: Naturalization is one of those record groups that forces researchers to pause in their hunt for ancestors. This has more to do with the many locations in which the records may be found than it does in how we use them. Naturalization records have not always been filed at the federal level. The Immigration and Naturalization Service didn't take over responsibility for those records until 1906. After 1906, all naturalization records are supposed to be at the INS, while copies may be found in the state or county levels. However, before 1906 there are many different places that need to be checked from the county up to the federal government's repositories.

Naturalization records may be recorded in many different places.

Important Dates in Naturalization

Through the years there have been additional acts passed by Congress that have affected the naturalization process:

Declaration of Intention needed 5 years before citizenship; residence of 14 years.
Declaration of Intention needed 3 years before citizenship; residence of 5 years; children automatically citizens when parents were naturalized.
Children of foreign birth who had lived in the U.S. for at least 5 years could be naturalized on their 21st birthday.
Law allowing the expulsion of aliens was passed.
The Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization created, and records are centralized.
Alien women who were married to U.S. citizens could apply for naturalization after one year of residency.
The National Origins Act - first immigration quota law.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act passed.

These are just a few of the milestones over the years that affect the naturalization process.

Naturalization Records

The naturalization process was slightly more involved than showing up at the county courthouse or the district court building and swearing allegiance to the United States. While that was one of the steps, there were in fact three separate steps to the process of becoming a naturalized citizen.

Declaration of Intent
The Declaration of Intent is sometimes referred to as the first papers. This was the first step. This document indicated an immigrant's desire to become a naturalized citizen. Earlier ones include less information that those in the latter 1800s on into the 1900s. Some of them simply state the immigrant's name, the old country and the ruler they are now planning to denounce allegiance to.

Application for Naturalization
The Application for Naturalization was also known as the second papers. This is the record that you want to concentrate on finding since it often contains the most information. Some of them include the ship upon which the immigrant arrived, the date of arrival, as well as important information such as the date and place of birth. Again these records have undergone changes, and those from the late 1800s and early 1900s are better than those of the mid 1800s.

Naturalization Certificate
Once a person is naturalized, they receive an official certificate. This certificate usually lists the court that granted naturalization, the date, and the name of the new citizen. Although it contains few genealogical details, this certificate is a nice addition to any collection of family history documents.

Where to Turn Before 1906

As you can see by the above table, there were waiting periods before certain aspects of the naturalization process could be completed. Given that naturalizations before 1906 were filed on the county level, it is possible that each of the separate steps in the naturalization process can be found in three different places. Even if your ancestor didn't move around much, you may still find that the records have ended up in different repositories, some of them at the federal level.

If you haven't done so yet, you will want to examine everything you know about your ancestor and establish a time line of where he was living from the time of his birth until he died. The counties that he lived in up until the time of his naturalization are the ones where you will want to begin your search for naturalization records. This will probably mean that you will have to look in more than one county but the number of counties shouldn't be unmanageable.

You will want to begin first by looking at the Family History Library Catalog of the Family History Library. They have amassed quite a collection of naturalization records on microfilm. Because they are on microfilm, you can order them to your local Family History Center, where you can go through them in detail. In some cases you may find that the county records have been indexed and may be available on microfilm as well.

Generally speaking, it is a good idea to look at all the available records you find for the time period and locality in which your ancestors were living. In this case, you will want to look at the index records on microfilm. At the very least you will want to read through the catalog directory to see what the index covers.

In Conclusion

It is likely that the National Archives branch didn't find your ancestor because the records you need are at the county level. Establish the counties in which your ancestor was living and then you will know where to begin searching for the naturalization records.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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