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Overheard in GenForum: Question on When Immigrants Naturalized
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.

July 11, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: My ancestor states on 1900 California census that he was naturalized in 1840 at age 18. Were immigrants naturalized at time of arrival or later? He was born in Scotland and I don't know if he came by way of Canada or directly to U.S. What was procedure? -- Marilyn

A: While the United States can trace its history back to the early 1600s, with the founding of Jamestown and the famous trip made on the Mayflower. Of course, it did not become the United States until the late 1700s, after having fought a bitter war of Independence.

Since that time, there have been some major changes to the naturalization process. It has gone from an oath of allegiance to what is now a foreign country to the system in place today. Each change has altered who could become naturalized and the process that was necessary.

Sometimes you need to know the history of the naturalization process.

Naturalization's First Act

Before the American Revolution, there were some states that had "oaths of allegiance." These oaths were often signed as the male passengers disembarked after having arrived in this new country. There is often confusion about the oath of allegiance by those new to the process. Many are confused about who the individual is pledging his oath to. The fact was that he was actually denouncing his home country and pledging his allegiance to England. After all, up until 1783, the American colonies were a part of England.

At the end of the American Revolution, the country began to set up a new system of governing. Among other things, in 1790, on 26 March, the first step was taken to come up with a uniform method of handling naturalization. This act required that those wanting to be naturalized have lived in the United States for at least two years. It also allowed that children of those citizens who became naturalized were themselves to be considered naturalized.

The next major act that involved naturalization processes was the act of 29 January 1795. This increased the number of years of residency for naturalization to five years. During that five years, the three step process could be accomplished as follows

  • Step 1 - The immigrant had to be in the state from which he was applying for at least one year
  • Step 2 - After two year of residency the immigrant could submit the Declaration of Intent, also known as the "first papers."
  • Step 3 - Three years after the filing of the Declaration of Intent, the Petition for Naturalization, or second papers, could be filed.

Additional Tweaking

The next major change to the naturalization process was to come in 1798. The residency requirement was expanded to fourteen years. The declaration of intent was to be filed five years before the immigrant could be given his citizenship.

It was also during this time that the U.S. Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. This gave the president the power to seize and expel any immigrant suspected of subversive activities. This was no doubt the result of those traveling over from Ireland after the failed Irish rebellion. Most of the changes in the naturalization or passenger list requirements have been the result of something happening either with the types of immigrants coming or problems after a large wave of immigrants.

In 1802 the length of residency was once again changed, this time back to the requirements in the act of 1795. Again children of naturalized immigrants were to be considered naturalized themselves.

The next change, one that primarily affected minors, was the fact that alien minors were considered naturalized upon reaching the age of twenty-one, with one provision. At the time they reached the age of twenty-one, they had to have been living in the United States for at least five years. What this did was to naturalize those minor children whose parents did not go through the naturalization process.

Your Ancestor's Naturalization

Based on the above changes in the naturalization acts, it would appear that your ancestor would have had to be in the United States for at least five years before he could have been naturalized. This would put his immigration at least to 1835.

I do have one question about the interpretation of the 1900 census citizenship columns. You mentioned that he was naturalized in 1840 at the age of 18. The columns for 1900 do not mention the year of naturalization. What they tell you are the year of immigration, the number of years in the United States, and whether or not the individual was naturalized. If the year listed was 1840, then that was the year your ancestor arrived in the United States, not the year of naturalization.

What this does tell you is that you need to determine everywhere that your ancestor lived from 1840 to 1900. Then you need to search the naturalization records of each county for his various filings of the first and second papers.

In Conclusion

Because of the many changes, naturalization has often been a difficult record type to pursue. Because of the decentralized method of the original process, the records are found in many different places. Searching from local county courthouses all the way to the National Archives branch responsible for that area of the country is sometimes required to find the papers in question.

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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