Find Your Immigrant Ancestor - Naturalization Records

On locating and using naturalization records in genealogy research


One of the thorny issues of genealogy research is determining the place of origin of an ancestor. If you are doing research in the United States, unless your ancestors were Native Americans, you will inevitably have to deal with discovering the place of origin of an immigrant.


One of the most potentially productive areas of research involve naturalization records. However, there are some definite time-related limitations on their usefulness. As you go back in time, there are fewer records and those that do exist become less valuable due to their lack of detail. For this reason, it is important to understand the naturalization process as well as the general time periods in which the records can be expected to be found.


The earliest naturalization laws were not passed until 1790. It is important to realize that when a person entered the area now part of the United States of America, their entry was made according to the laws of the various European countries that controlled the area of entry. For example, immigrants who settled in the area now known as Arizona, New Mexico or California before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 were entering into Spain or Mexico. This is an important fact to remember. Likewise, if someone came from England before 1776, they were essentially moving from one part of the British Empire to another part and were not strictly "immigrants." They did not change their citizenship upon their arrival in America. Accordingly, there are no naturalization records available during those time periods. If people came from other areas of the world, then they would most likely be found in ship passenger arrival records.


Naturalization is defined as the process by which an alien becomes a national citizen. The process in the United States can be divided into two general time periods: pre-1906 and naturalization after 1906. This time division is based on the fact that prior to 1906 naturalization was handled by local court's of record, whether municipal, county, state or federal. In 1906 the Naturalization Acts required all naturalizations to be handled by the Federal District Courts and all the records were transferred, after that time, to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The pre-1906 records are scattered in archives and other repositories around the country.


Finding the naturalization records before 1906 takes some degree of detective-like investigation. In the first instance, you need to ascertain the exact location of the ancestor, at about the time the initial naturalization petition was filed. Next, the history of the court system in that place needs to be studied to determine where the petition would have been filed, that is, which court could have had jurisdiction to declare citizenship. If the court is identified, then the records also need to be located. Once located they need to be searched. It must be understood that, in some cases, the petition could have been filed in several different places.


One good indicator of the existence of an ancestor's naturalization record is a mention of naturalization in the U.S. federal census. The naturalization status of foreign-born people was listed on the census records from 1890 to 1930. But the 1890 U.S. federal census records were partially lost to a fire and the rest destroyed by the U.S. government with a very few exceptions.


In most cases, applying for naturalization was a two-step process; the alien filed a "declaration of intent" after being in the United States for at least two years and then after 3 more years filed a "petition for naturalization." Before 1906, the content of these documents varied from court to court. A summary of the problem of locating the records is given in a short article entitled "Naturalization Records" on the U.S. National Archives website. As the U.S. National Archives article point out, from 1790 to 1922:


Wives of naturalized men automatically became citizens. This also meant that an alien woman who married a U.S. citizen automatically became a citizen. (Conversely, an American woman who married an alien lost her U.S. citizenship, even if she never left the United States.) From 1790 to 1940, children under the age of 21 automatically became naturalized citizens upon the naturalization of their father. Unfortunately, however, names and biographical information about wives and children are rarely included in declarations or petitions filed before September 1906.


The Utah State Archives article on Naturalization and Citizenship Records explains the status of wives and children more completely. Here is a quote:


With the passage of the Cable Act in 1922 women were allowed to naturalize on their own (42 Stat. 1021). A married women whose husband was a citizen did not need to file a Declaration of Intent. A woman who had lost her citizenship through marriage and regained it under the Cable Act could file to naturalize in any naturalization court. In 1936, Congress passed a new act allowing a woman who had lost her citizenship between 1907-1922 through marriage to a foreign national to take an oath of allegiance for citizenship to be restored.
From 1790 to 1940 children under the age of 21 automatically assumed citizenship with the naturalization of their father. Before 1906 names of minor children rarely appear on the declaration or petition forms. If there was no father who could naturalize himself and his family, a minor alien who had lived in the U.S. for at least five years could file the declaration and petition together before his 23rd birthday.
In 1929, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service began issuing a "Certificate of Derivative Citizenship" to women and children who had gained naturalization through the naturalization of their husband or father.


At different times, various minority groups such as Chinese, Blacks, Native Americans and Hawaiians, were not permitted citizenship.


After 1940, finding an immigrant became somewhat easier because there were more documents recorded.


In summary, the first step is locating the immigrant in the United States. You have to identify a specific event in the ancestor's life at a specific time and place. Without a specific location of an event, you cannot be sure you are searching the right records. Next, you need to review census records and other records to see if there is any mention of the ancestor's naturalization. You need this information to narrow the extent of the record search. Once you have a place and a time frame, you need to identify the courts having jurisdiction in the time and place where you ancestor lived and determine which courts would have had jurisdiction over naturalization petitions. You then need to determine where the courts records are located and search the records (if they still exist).


As I have noted, discovering the origin of the immigrant is one of the most challenging and at the same time, most common, issues facing genealogists. I spent a considerable time searching for the birthplace of one of my ancestors in Ireland and thought I might find the place noted in naturalization records in Pennsylvania. In this case, I looked for records from his children who were born in Ireland. I was disappointed to find that the naturalization documents listed the birthplaces as "Ireland" and that was not much help.


The records, when found, can be very valuable or of little or no value and there is no way to predict what you will find. Before 1906, you might be disappointed at the lack of information in the records. Then again, you might hit the jackpot.


Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.




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