July 12, 2019
One of the records that many genealogists particularly want to find is their immigrant ancestors’ naturalization records. For many of us, it’s a thrill to actually see the records that changed not just our ancestors’ lives but our own even today. Unfortunately, those records are not always easy to find, but knowing a few facts about naturalization can help the search.
The first thing to think about when looking for naturalization is determining if your ancestor was ever naturalized at all. It often comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that immigrants were never required to be naturalized, and many did not become citizens. There were costs involved in becoming a citizen, and many immigrants just didn’t have the extra funds to pursue naturalization; others were leery of any type of government involvement in their lives and saw no benefit in becoming a citizen. For whatever reason, many immigrants lived decades in the United States without ever naturalizing.
To figure out if your ancestor was naturalized or not, a good starting point is the 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses. If your ancestor lived until that time period, those censuses asked a question concerning citizenship. Respondents were required to state when they immigrated to the United States and whether they were naturalized or not. This information can give a genealogist a starting point to look for naturalization records; however, be aware that the census records are notoriously error-prone, and immigration and naturalization information could have been mis-remembered and/or misinterpreted. Sometimes people even lied about their status. For example, my second great-grandfather was born in Canada but spent most of his life in the United States. On the 1900 and 1910 censuses (the last he was recorded on), he didn’t admit he was born outside of the United States. He even filed homestead papers, which required the claimant to be native born or naturalized or in the process of becoming naturalized, stating that he was native born. Apparently, no one every questioned his citizenship status during the 75 or so years he resided in the U.S.
Once it is determined that naturalization records may exist, finding those records is the next step. Naturalization was a multi-step process requiring applicants to submit a declaration of intent, a petition, and finally, to receive a certificate. The process was also multi-year since the declaration of intent (also referred to as First Papers) was usually filed soon after an immigrant arrived in the United States, and the petition for Citizenship required a waiting period that usually entailed several years (the exact time varied, but was usually five to seven years, depending on the period). Just to make finding the records a bit trickier, the Declaration of Intent and the Petition did not need to be filed at the same court, and both could be filed at any local, state or federal court in any state until 1906. After 1906, naturalizations were more regulated by the federal government, and only certain state and federal courts could perform them.
Immigrants usually filed their naturalization records in courts that were convenient to them, so it’s often a good idea to start looking in county records near where the immigrant lived. Since First Papers were usually filed soon after the immigrant arrived, look for them where the immigrant lived when he first came to America, not necessarily in the place he finally settled. A good starting point to find naturalization records is the webpage Online Naturalization Records and Indexes (https://www.germanroots.com/naturalization.html ) which contains links to online indexes and records. Both Familysearch and Ancestry are other good sites to find naturalization records.
When it comes to the information that a genealogist will find on naturalization records, it can vary greatly. Generally speaking, naturalization records after 1906 will contain the most information and can contain facts such as the exact date the immigrant arrived in the U.S., family members travelling with him, place of birth and even a picture of the immigrant. Records before 1906 typically have less information, and some may only be a statement renouncing the applicant’s allegiance to his former country and swearing his allegiance to the United States. Declarations of Intent often contain more genealogical information than Petitions. For example, a Declaration of Intent filed in 1872 by a great grand uncle listed the ship and the exact date he arrived in New York, while the later Petition for this same relative only stated that he had fulfilled his length of residency requirements and was of good moral character and had renounced his allegiance to his former country and sworn his allegiance to the United States and thus was affirmed as a citizen of the United States.
Whether an ancestor’s naturalization records are easy to access online or require extensive searching, most genealogists are driven to find them. Changing citizenship from one country to another was a momentous occasion in our ancestors’ lives, and an event that most of us want to memorialize by finding copies of the actual documents
Researcher/Director at Large