The search for Naturalization records can be one of the most frustrating areas of genealogical research.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service has passed many rules and they’ve been revised many times as well.
It’s impossible to provide hard and fast rules about the content or even the existence of naturalization records.
A Justice Department investigator made the following comment in 1903 …
“I find the naturalization records in many cases in a chaotic condition, many lost and destroyed, and some sold for old paper.
Most of the records consist of merely the name and nativity of the alien with no means of identifying aliens of the same name.
In numerous cases I find aliens naturalized under initials instead of Christian names, surnames misspelled or changed entirely, and names of witnesses inserted in place of the alien naturalized.
The examination of the records discloses the remarkable fact that never, since the first enactment of the naturalization laws, has any record been made in any court of the names of minor children who, under the operation of the statutes, were made citizens by the naturalization of their parents.
For every act Congress passed, it also made exceptions.
The only rule for searching naturalization records is: there is no rule.
I’d like to share with you some things that I’ve learned about the process that may help you or give you some hints so you’ll understand how the process worked and where you may need to look in your own search.
The definition of Naturalization is the legal procedure by which a foreign-born person becomes a citizen of a new county.
Becoming naturalized was not an important concern to the first European colonist. They simply were trying to survive in a hostile and strange environment. Before the American Revolution, most early citizenship records were oaths of allegiance signed by individuals as they left from the ships that brought them here. The administration of the oaths as well as the words in them, were under the jurisdiction of the British Parliament.
As the colonies became independent states, residents who were British citizens had to choose between British and American citizenship. Many who remained loyal to England were forced to move, as the locations in which they were living became part of the new country and their lives were sometime in jeopardy.
Naturalization is a voluntary act, and not required. But there were many reasons for an alien to become naturalized.
During the Great Depression, employment and relief opportunities were limited to citizens of the U.S. This requirement, and you’ll see this as we go along, posed a problem for those who had become U.S. citizens as wives or children of a naturalized citizen.
Anyone looking for work from the Works Projects Administration (or the WPA, as it was known) was required to prove U.S. citizenship. The same was true for civil service, old-age pensions, the right to vote, and other benefits and privileges were reserved for citizens only.
This was true also for many positions in private employment as well. They were only open to American citizens.
Of the foreign-born persons listed on the censuses from 1890 to 1920, 25 per cent had NOT become naturalized or filed what was known as their “first papers.”
Before 1906, naturalization was carried out by thousands of courts, federal, state, county, local and each court kept its own records and own interpretation of the law.
You could spend years looking for papers only to find that there is little genealogical information in them or, worse, not to find them at all.
Sometimes they can’t be found because the immigrant did not get naturalized. Many people filed an intent or declaration of intent to become a citizen but never completed the process.
So you had many aliens living their lives as positive contributors to their community without formally acquiring citizenship.
Some states (by Constitution) allowed aliens who had filed only the declaration of intention, to vote, and in some cases to own land. (This is true except for certain periods when full citizenship was required to purchase property)
March 26, 1790
The first naturalization act was passed by Congress on March 26, 1790, and it provided that any free, white adult alien, male or female, who had resided within the limits and jurisdiction of the United States for a period of 2 years, was eligible for citizenship.
The terms free and white eliminated a lot people right off the bat. This was finally changed in 1870 when persons of African descent could apply.
Under the act, any individual who desired to become a citizen was to apply to “any common law court of record, in any one of the states wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least.
Citizenship was granted to those who proved to the court’s satisfactions that they were of good moral character, had met the residency requirement and who took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution.
Under the system established by the act, aliens could be naturalized not only in Federal courts, but also in State and local courts, and the wife and children (if under 21), of successful applicant automatically became citizens.
January 29, 1795
The act of 1790 was repealed and on January 29, 1795 some stricter rules were put in place:
The period of residence required for citizenship was increased from 2 to 5 years.
It required applicants to declare publicly their intention to become citizens of the United States and to renounce any allegiance to a foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty 3 years before admission as citizens.
Immigrants who had “borne any hereditary title, or been of the order of nobility” were also required to renounce that status.
These actions could be taken before the supreme, superior, district, or circuit court of any State or Territory, or before a Federal circuit or district court of the United States.
On April 14, 1802, certain doubts had arisen as to whether State and local courts were included within the description of United States district or circuit courts.
The act of 1802 reaffirmed that every State and Territorial court was considered a district court within the meaning of the laws pertaining to naturalization, and that any persons naturalized in such courts were accorded the same rights and privileges as if they had been naturalized in a district or circuit court of the United States.
On February 10, 1855, Congress passed an act that was designed to benefit immigrant women. Under this act, any woman who is now or may hereafter be married to a citizen of the United States, and who might herself be lawfully naturalized, shall be deemed a citizen.
Unless a woman was single or widowed, she had few reasons to naturalize prior to the twentieth century. Women, foreign-born or native, could not vote. Until the mid-nineteenth century, they typically did not hold property or appear as “persons” before the law. Under these circumstances, only widows and spinsters would be expected to seek the protections citizenship might afford.
Often women had no choice but to file at least a declaration of intent. In some states aliens could not file for divorce or any other court proceedings. An alien woman seeking divorce might file the declaration simply to facilitate filing a separate suit.
You also have to remember that naturalization involved the payment of court fees. Without any tangible benefit resulting from a woman’s naturalization, it is doubtful that many women or their husbands considered the fees to be money well spent.
The only women who did not derive citizenship by marriage under this law were those racially ineligible for naturalization and;
And to those women whose marriage to a United State citizen occurred suspiciously soon after her arrest for prostitution.
While you will find some courts that naturalized the wives of aliens, until 1922 the courts generally held that the alien wife of an alien husband could not herself be naturalized.
An immigrant women suddenly became a citizen when she and her U.S. citizen fiancé were declared man and wife. If the husband naturalized before 1906, she may or may not be mentioned on the record which actually granted her citizenship.
Her only proof would be the marriage certificate and her husband’s naturalization record. If she had minor children, they too, derived citizenship and this was their proof as well.
Prior to 1922, this provision applied to immigrant women regardless of their place of residence, even if they resided outside of the U. S. If the husband came to America to seek work, became a naturalized citizen, then sent for her to join him, that woman entered the U.S. for the first time as a U.S. citizen. If they had minor children, they also derived citizenship.
Just as alien women gained U.S. citizenship by marriage, U.S. born women often gained foreign nationality and thereby lost their U.S. citizenship by marriage to a foreigner.
As the law linked women’s citizenship to that of their husbands, the courts frequently found that U.S. citizen women expatriated themselves by marriage to an alien.
After 1907 marriage determined a woman’s nationality status completely. All women acquired their husband’s nationality upon any marriage occurring after the date.
This changed nothing for immigrant women, but U.S. born citizen women could now lose their citizenship by marriage to an alien. Most of these women regained their citizenship when their husband’s naturalized.
Those who married Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or other men who were racially ineligible to naturalize, forfeited their citizenship.
For years there was disagreement whether she actually had to leave the United States andreside with her husband abroad.
Eventually it was decided that between 1866 and 1907 no woman lost her U.S. citizenship by marriage to an alien unless she left the U.S.
This decision was probably of little comfort to some women who had lived in the U.S. since their birth, but had been unfairly treated as aliens since their marriage to non-citizens.
On June 27, 1906, Congress passed an act that expanded the existing Immigration Bureau to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization and put it in charge of “all matters concerning the naturalization of aliens.”
Although the new bureau was part of the Department of Labor and Commerce initially, and part of the Department of Labor from 1913 to 1940, most of its operations were directed by the Department of Justice, and, in 1940, the Bureau was made part of the Justice Department.
Under the act of 1906, every petition for naturalization became a case for examination by Bureau officials.
This act also established the basic procedure for naturalization during the period 1906-1952.The procedure began with:
The filing of the declaration of intention, which recorded the applicant’s oath to the clerk of the court that it was his or her bona fide intention to become a citizen of the United States, to reside permanently therein, and to renounce all allegiances to other nations.Within a period of 2 to 7 years after filing the declaration, the applicant could petition the court for citizenship, at this time he had to present the affidavits of two witnesses (who were U.S. citizens) who had personal knowledge of the applicant, they stated that the applicant had resided in the United States for at least 5 years and possessed a good moral character.
The petition then became the subject of an investigation and hearing before a judge. Officials of the Bureau conduct preliminary examinations and submitted findings and recommendations to the court.
The hearing before a judge was the last step in the procedure, provided the judge found the finding and recommendations of naturalization officials favorable and satisfactory, then the applicant would take an oath of allegiance to the United States Constitution and laws and renounce all foreign allegiance, and the judge would issue an order of admission to citizenship and the applicant a certificate of citizenship.
However, a judge could also order a continuance of the investigation or deny the petition, listing the reasons for the denial. A major change in this procedure occurred in 1952, when the filing of the declaration of intention was eliminated.
May 9, 1918
One of the other major exception to the general rule was special consideration was given to veterans. An 1862 law allowed honorably discharged army veterans of any war to petition for naturalization – without previously having filed a declaration of intent – after only 1 year of residence in the U.S. The 1894 law extended the same no-previous-declaration privilege to honorably discharged 5 year veterans of the Navy or Marine Corps.
Over 192,000 aliens were naturalized between May 9, 1918 and June 30, 1919 under the act that allowed aliens serving in the U.S. armed forces during the “the present war” to file a petition for naturalization without making a declaration of intent or proving 5 years residence.Laws enacted from 1919 thru 1952 continued preferential treatment provision for veterans.
IMPORTANT - Members of the armed forces were naturalized at military posts and nearby courts instead of their legal residences.
The era when a women’s nationality was determined through that of her husband neared its end when this legal provision began to interfere with men’s ability to naturalize. This unforeseen situation arose in and after 1918 when various states began approving an amendment to grant women suffrage (and which became the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920).
Given that women who derived citizenship through a husband’s naturalization would now be able to vote, some judges refused to naturalize men whose wives did not meet eligibility requirements, including the ability to speak English. The additional examination of each applicant’s wife delayed already crowded court dockets, and some men who were denied citizenship began to complain that it was unfair to let their wives’ nationality interfere with their own.
September 22, 1922
Congress enacted a law known as the Married Women’s Act (it was also known as the Cable Act) and it changed the naturalization procedure for married women.
Before that date, women who were married to a U.S. citizen or naturalized citizen automatically became U.S. citizens by reason of the marriage. The new law finally gave each woman a nationality of her own. No declaration of intention was needed and the period of residence was reduced from 5 years to 1 year. Additionally, women who had gained derivative citizenship from their husband or father could now be issued a Certificate of Derivative Citizenship from the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service.
It wasn’t until 1940 that the INS could issue certificates to women who gained citizenship by marriage to a man already a citizen. The Proof of marriage to a U.S. citizen occurring prior to September 22, 1922, and proof of the husband’s citizenship, remained as the foundation for legally documenting a foreign-born woman’s citizenship.
Act of 1924
Congress enacted a policy of quota restrictions on immigration.
It limited those persons eligible for naturalization to a number based on the ratio of the number of citizens of the same nationality already residing within the United States to the total U.S. population in 1920.
The result of this law was that emigrants from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland made up more than two-thirds of those eligible under the annual maximum quota.
Act of 1952
The act of 1952 was known as The McCarran Act, revised the 1924 act by basing the annual quota on a flat one-sixteenth of 1 percent of the population as recorded in the 1920 censes.
More important, it removed race as a barrier to immigration and naturalization by assigning a quota of not fewer of 100 person too countries whose citizens were previously ineligible for naturalization.
Recapping The Naturalization Process
Prior to 1906 an alien could be naturalized in any court of record. Generally, immigrants took their first papers out in the county where they first lived in the U.S.
Second papers could be anywhere the immigrant had settled in any court that was close to where he lived. First and second papers did not have to be filed in the same court.
Pre-1906 naturalization forms (declaration and petitions) varied in content and wording from court to court, county to county, year to year.
After 1906, naturalization could only be done in a federal court,
And at last, there was standard information required on all Certificates were issued to naturalized citizens when they completed all citizenship requirements.
Post 1906, these contain the names, ages, and residence of all family members. After 1929 a photograph was attached to the final certificate. These certificates came in books much like a modern check register with stubs. Some courts kept copies of these numbered stubs and they sometimes contain genealogically useful information. From 1906-1924, the NS checked ship manifests to verify the arrival of each applicant. (The handwritten verifications often appear on passenger ship records during that time period and can provide a clue to the date of a person’s naturalization.) The alien was then issued a certificate of arrival which was filed with his citizenship papers attesting to the fact that he did indeed arrive on that date and the ship and at the port at which he said he had. After 1924, aliens were required to have visas upon their arrival to this country. So certificates of arrival were no longer issued.
Where are these records?
Many early records have been scattered, warehoused, moved, donated, or lost. Indexes are not necessarily with the actual documents.
Those early naturalizations which survive are generally preserved in the states in which they were created.
Don’t be surprised if county court employees tell you that their naturalization records are at “the National Archives” or that their court never conducted naturalizations. Most current court employees are probably not genealogist and may not be familiar with the court’s older records. It is up to the researcher to determine the location of older court records. Some printed indexes have been published and/or microfilmed. State historical societies and archives are the best places to begin searching for these early records.
The Family History Library has millions of court records on microfilm. Genealogical societies and libraries have been rescuing early records, indexing them, and making them available to researchers. Many are now starting to appear online.
Many post-1906 naturalizations and indexes are microfilmed and available at National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regional offices. Others are at the INS.
Background History of the United States Naturalization Process by Eilleen Bolger, courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Regional National Archives and Records Administration.
Engaging the World, February 13, 2008, Immigration and United States History
The History of Naturalization Requirements
Naturalization & Citizenship Records
United States Naturalization Records
The National Archives and Records Administration, Naturalization Records
Fall 2004, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall Genealogy, Gold Mine of Naturalization Records in New England
Summer 1998, Vol. 30, No. 2, Women and Naturalization, ca. 1902-1940, by Marian L. Smith
Compiled by Joyce Emma for The Grand Strand Genealogy Club
January 8, 2011