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Overheard on the Message Boards: How 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.

June 20, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Could anyone tell me how I would go about finding out where and when my ancestor became a naturalized citizen of the United States? Is there an online database I can access to obtain this information, and if so what is the URL? -- Karen

A: Naturalization is one of those resources that has not remained constant over the years. Since the United States became the United States, there have been changes to the naturalization process and where it takes place. More importantly, though, there have been changes as to who is responsible for the record keeping.

These changes through the years have also affected the kinds of information you'll find once you have determined where to locate a record.

You need to know when before you will know where.

Finding Out When

Before you can begin to search for naturalization records, you need to find out when the naturalization took place. Usually the first records genealogists check in trying to determine this is census records. The census from 1900 to 1930 will give you some indication as to the status of naturalization of your ancestor. If your ancestor was in this country before 1900 and died before 1900, then you need to at least determine where he was from the time he arrived in the United States to the time of his death.

While the earlier census records do not indicate whether or not he was naturalized, they are important in determining where he was living. I mention your male ancestors specifically because for many years females were not required to go through the naturalization process. They either became naturalized at the time of their marriage to a United States citizen or acquired citizenship when their husband became a naturalized citizen.

It might prove helpful to create a timeline of you ancestor's known residences to figure out if the naturalization was likely to have taken place before 1900. Combine your census research with land and tax research to see if you can identify when your ancestor arrived in each county you have located him in within the census.

Turning to Naturalization Records

Naturalization records and the process of naturalization have changed over the years. The major changes related to the information found in the records and where you are likely to find the records in question.

Before 1906, naturalizations were done on local county levels. This is why I suggested you identify all the places where your ancestor was living throughout his life. It is possible for the naturalization records to be found in more than one county courthouse.

The naturalization process was a three-step process and, as a result, you'll want to look for three different documents. Those three documents, prior to 1906, can be found in three different courthouses. This is true of those immigrants who worked their way west either to join those of the same ethnic background or simply in search of land to make a living for themselves and their family.

After 1906 the process was simplified by the centralization of records with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, DC. For those who were naturalized after 1906, you will first want to check out the information INS Web site.

Naturalization Records

As was mentioned above, there were three records generated during the naturalization process. Each one was unique and there are some that offer more information for genealogists than others.

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.

In Conclusion

Determining when and if your ancestor was naturalized can be a multi-step process. This is especially true if he died before 1900 and you have no census records to easily identify if he did indeed become a naturalized citizen.

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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