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Overheard on the Message Boards: Where to Find Naturalization Records
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.

April 24, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I'm trying to find the Naturalization papers for Martin Domagalski. In the 1890 Chicago Voter Registration lists it says that he was naturalized in the "Superior Court of New York" in 1884. I don't know where he was from in New York. Can anyone tell me where I should write to find his papers? I appreciate any help. Thanks! -- Nick

A: Naturalization records often lead us on a merry chase. Part of the reason for that is that for a long time an immigrant could file whatever paper he needed in the process no matter where he was living in the United States.

So let's take a look at the records you should be looking for and see how you can find them. Keep in mind that although you know of a specific court where something took place, this does not mean, that all of the naturalization records will be found there.

Naturalization is like following a trail of crumbs.

A Look at Naturalization Records

The naturalization process has long been governed by rules and required waiting periods. For instance, most immigrants were required to wait a number of years after immigrating before beginning the naturalization process. Another waiting period was required after the first step of the naturalization process. Throughout those years it is always possible that your ancestor moved as he tried to make a living or set down roots.

The first step in the naturalization process is the declaration of intent. This is the paper that says the person is declaring that he wants to renounce allegiance to the old country and become a citizen of the new country. Very little genealogical information is usually found in this page, which is also often referred to as the first papers.

The second step is the filing of the application for naturalization. These are the second papers and they are the most important to a genealogist who is hoping to find information about an ancestor's life in the old country. The second papers are the ones that are most likely to offer you information about the date and place of birth as well as when the immigrant arrived including the date, port and ship. All of this is useful information.

The third step, known as the final papers, is the actual certificate of naturalization. This is the paper an immigrant gets once they have taken the oath. This certifies that the individual in question is a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Where are the Records?

Before 1906, when the federal immigration service took responsibility for naturalization records, you will find that the records can be almost anywhere. Most are found on the county level in a county courthouse. If your ancestor moved around a lot, you may find the declaration of intent in one county and the application for naturalization in another county. So, it is important to construct a timeline for your ancestor so that you know where he was from the date of immigration until death or naturalization (if you already know when he was naturalized).

Of course, while many records are found on the county level, this does not mean it is the only place you will need to look. I have also found naturalization records at the state level, as part of the state archives or other major state repository. And there are times when I have also found the pre-1906 records at the National Archives branch responsible for the state in question.

As you can see, it is possible for the records to be anywhere. As such you need to have patience and an open mind. Don't discount any repository just because you think the records should be found on the county level. Instead you need to check each one and only then can you check it off as not having what you want.

What Records Are Available?

According to your research, your ancestor was naturalized in the Superior Court of New York. Of course, you are no doubt wondering if this is the state of New York or a county in New York.

To get an idea of what naturalization records exist for the state of New York as well as the individual counties, you will want to see if your local library has Christine K. Schaefer's Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States published by Genealogical Publishing Company in 1997. This should not be the only book you consult, but it will give you a good starting place as to what records Schaefer has identified as available and where some of them can be found.

Looking at Schaefer's book for New York, one entry piqued my interest. Under statewide records and resources, I found a listing for a soundex index that covers the years 1792 to 1906. This index is available on microfilm at the Family History Library and can be borrowed to your local Family History Center. This index has indexed, among other records, the New York County Superior Court naturalization records from 1828 to 1895.

Ordering this index for the surname in question would be the first step in seeing if this is the superior court in which your ancestor was naturalized. Remember, though, that he may have just completed his last step at this court. Hopefully you will find him in the index and this will lead you to the volume and page where you will find more information.

In some instances I have been lucky to not only find the certificate of naturalization but also the other papers together. Then there are times when I am left to follow the paper like a trail of crumbs. Once I discover where he applied and when, that information takes me back to sources that tell me what records are available and where I might find them.

In Conclusion

While my search for superior court records was cursory, and you would no doubt be more thorough, I believe that the Superior Court of New York is the one found in the county of New York. At the very least, in working through the index that includes these records, you have something to start with.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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