Becoming an American -- Early Naturalization Records
Genealogy 104: Sources Between 1820 and 1865, Lesson 3
In an earlier lesson, we discussed the post-1906 naturalization records, designed and maintained by the immigration and naturalization service of the U.S. federal government. However, naturalization of aliens had long been a part of American society, even before the Revolutionary War and the creation of the United States. Since naturalization records have a direct bearing on finding immigrants between 1820 and 1854, we will discuss them here.
Although the United States government did not pass its first naturalization laws until 1790, there were rules and regulations governing how alien males became citizens even during the colonial time period (females, and youths, were never considered citizens during this period). However, two aspects of colonial naturalization must be remembered: First, naturalization was handled by the individual colonies. There was no "federal" government. Second, as British colonies, any British subjects had citizenship anywhere in the American colonies. Thus colonial naturalization was reserved for "foreigners."
African Americans-Denied Citizenship
The largest group of "foreigners" to arrive at the shores of the New World were African Americans imported as slaves from Africa. They, of course, were denied rights as citizens, and were treated as property.
Other European Colonies-Considered Citizens Already
Some of the earliest European foreigners to settle in North America were the French, Swedes, and Dutch. However, these persons typically settled in colonies of their native countries (Quebec, Delaware, and New Netherlands, later New York). Therefore, they were also considered citizens of their colonies, without naturalization proceedings. As Great Britain conquered those colonies, their residents "automatically" became British citizens. The practice of considering previous residents of newly acquired territory as citizens already, continued on as the United States gained territory from other nations (Louisiana Purchase, Texas, California, etc.).
Therefore, during the colonial period, Germans were the only major "foreigners" to settle in British possessions. They are the only ones for which significant colonial naturalization lists exist. Primarily an 18th century immigration, Germans came predominantly to Pennsylvania, with others arriving in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. For foreigners, such as Germans (and other 18th century European immigrants), to be considered citizens, the adult men had to swear to an "Oath of Allegiance," typically written by the colony.
The largest, and most well-known collection of these records are those connected with the arrival of 30,000 Germans at Philadelphia during the 1700s. These were published by William Henry Egle, editor, as Names of Foreigners Who Took the Oath of Allegiance to the Province and State of Pennsylvania, 1727-1775, 1890 (reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1967).
Another list, including more than just Germans, was published by Montague Spencer Giuseppi, editor, as Naturalizations of Foreign Protestants in the American and West Indian Colonies, 1921 (reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1964, 1979). Several briefer lists have appeared in various genealogical and historical journals.
These records are simply lists of names of persons who signed the required oaths. They do not indicate when they arrived, or from what country. They do not indicate where they resided (other than the colony) or their age, or list any family members. All they suggests is that these persons came from, or were loyal to, a non-British country.
During the Revolutionary War, some colonies administered loyalty or allegiance oaths to many adult males, of any ethnic group, to affirm their loyalty to the rebellious colony, rather than to England. While not true naturalization records, they do help establish a person's residence. However, it would be wrong to presume that a person's name on such lists indicated a foreign origin.
A New Nation Leads to New Laws
With the establishment of a new country, the United States of America, the new federal government acquired the responsibility to define citizenship. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to establish rules for naturalization. This they first undertook in March of 1790. This very liberal law was replaced in 1795 with a law which has, (except from 1798 to 1802) been the foundation of the naturalization process ever since.
Primary Naturalization Requirements
The primary naturalization requirements included residence in the country for at least five years, including one year in the state or territory where application was made, as well as renouncing any foreign allegiance and hereditary or noble titles. The process was also established as a two-step process. The alien must first file a declaration of intention to become a citizen (often called the first papers). This had to be done at least three years before the next step. The second step (called second or final papers) was to file a petition for admission to citizenship. These could be filed in any court of record with a clerk and a seal. The court would then examine the applicant and, upon judging him worthy, admit him to citizenship. Since the rights and privileges of citizenship generally only applied to males (voting, owning land), women seldom naturalized. Until the 1920s, they held citizenship through their husband or father.
Which Court Has the Records?
Although the federal government had passed the laws pertaining to naturalization, they did not enforce them, or mandate how individual states applied those laws. This was left to the discretion of state legislatures. Therefore, each state applied these laws somewhat differently. The largest differences seem to pertain to deciding which courts within a state's jurisdiction would conduct naturalization, and the information gathered from the immigrant during the process.
While most federal courts (such as the U.S. District Courts) handled naturalizations, there were far fewer of these courts, and they were much less active, during the nineteenth century. Therefore, during the 1800s, most naturalizations took place in state courts. Most states delegated this task to one or two local courts. In Ohio, for example, the courts of common pleas (until about 1860) and the probate courts (after 1851) handled most naturalizations. In Michigan, the circuit courts were generally where naturalization proceedings occurred (until 1906). In large cities, such as New York and Chicago, the number of immigrants was so great, that almost every court conducted naturalizations.
Step One: Declaration of Intent
Since the states actually applied the federal laws, you will find some variation in the information gathered in each state. Most of the early declarations only include the name of the immigrant and the country of which they were formerly a subject. However, some states, in designing forms for the courts to use, worded the forms such that birth places are sometimes recorded. A few states, or courts, actually seemed to require the birth town, with wording such as ". . . ________ (name of applicant) late of ________ (place) ________ in ________ (country) ________ but now of the town of ________ (current residence) ________ . . ." (from the Troy Justices' Court, Rensselaer, New York). In many jurisdictions, the amount of information requested of the alien increased over time. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, more courts were asking, and recording, such questions as the age, date of arrival, name of ship, and, sometimes, town of origin.
Step Two: Petition for Citizenship
After the required period of residence, and after having filed a declaration of intent, the alien could appear at any authorized court and petition to become a citizen.
We should first note that the petition did not have to be filed in the same court where the declaration was filed. Often the immigrant had moved, and was no longer in the jurisdiction of the court where the declaration was filed. The immigrant should have received a copy of the declaration, so he could present it to the new court when he filed his petition.
Typically the petition included even less information than the declaration of intent. At a minimum, it would of course give the alien's name, and the country (or sovereign) of which they were previously a subject. Many of the preserved petitions also include a copy of the declaration, or the text of the petition identifies where the declaration was filed.
The legal requirement that the applicant be of good moral character was usually met by the oath of one or two persons (presumably citizens) who swore that they knew the applicant to be of good character. These oaths were usually included on the form that served as the petition.
Locating the Records
Since most of these records were created by local state courts, that is the place to begin. Each county may keep their naturalization records differently, so inquire at the county clerk's office for the county where your immigrant ancestor(s) lived. Keep in mind these items as you are searching for your ancestors:
Check several counties: since your ancestors may have moved several times during their lives, you may need to check several places. Begin with the counties where they first settled, and where they lived the longest.
Remember, naturalization was not required, and some immigrants did not naturalize. This is especially the case for much older immigrants (elderly parents who joined adult children in America) or those who died within a few years of arrival. Some ethnic groups were less inclined to naturalize. Germans, Jews, and Irish naturalized in high percentages. Italians, Greeks, and others from Mediterranean areas, often never naturalized.
Be wise in your searching skills. In areas where there were many immigrants, such as the northern states, most courts kept naturalization proceedings in separate books or ledgers. However, in some areas, especially in the south, there are no separate books. Rather, these actions were treated as any other court action, and are recorded, usually without pre printed forms, in the regular court minute and/or judgment books. In these cases, you will have to seek the immigrant's name on the court docket (index) lists.
There are very few statewide indexes, since most courts had county jurisdiction. Therefore, you will have to check with each court having naturalization jurisdiction where your immigrants lived. However, an increasing number of these records are being published, either as books or as articles in local periodicals. Inquire at local libraries for such publications. The largest single collection of naturalization records is found among the books and microfilms of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Use their catalog (available at any Family History Center) to learn what is on the microfilm. You can then order a copy of that film for searching at your local center.
For More Information
For help in locating records, check Christina K. Schaefer's Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997). While this provides a brief overview of the naturalization process, it 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.
Much of the facts cited above came 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 has been revised and expanded as American Naturalization Records, 1790-1990 (Bountiful, Utah: Heritage Quest, 1998.)
The most comprehensive discussion of naturalization laws, proceedings, and records is Loretto Dennis Szucs, They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998). This well-illustrated guide explains everything you need to know to learn more about finding, and using, these records.
Your assignment for this lesson is to help you better understand early naturalization records.
1. Check your local county clerk's office, state library, or closest archives to determine if they have any early naturalization records or some of the published sources mentioned in this lesson. A local Family History Center might also have some available (sometimes on microfilm), or some could be located and then sent to a local center by first searching www.FamilySearch.org and looking for the Family History Library Catalog. Then search for United States, Naturalization/Citizenship.
2. Review at least three different applications and petitions for naturalization from the nineteenth century. Locate papers from the early, middle and late part of the century and write down three ways in which they may have changed over time.
About Genealogy Research Associates
Karen Clifford is the Founder and President of Genealogy Research Associates. She is an Accredited Genealogist, an instructor in an Associates Degree program in Library Science-Genealogy and Computers at Hartnell College (Salinas, California) and Monterey Peninsula College (Monterey, California). She has authored several family histories and textbooks including Genealogy & Computers for the Complete Beginner; Genealogy & Computers for the Determined Researcher; Genealogy & Computers for the Advanced Researcher, and Becoming an Accredited Genealogist.
Karen currently serves as Vice-president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and Vice-president of the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA). She is a member of the California State Genealogy Alliance, the Association of Professional Genealogists, the National Genealogical Society, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society. In 1998 and 1999, Karen served as Director of UGA's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.
She has received several awards for her volunteer work in the genealogy community including the FGS Award of Merit and the FGS Outstanding Delegate Award.