June 6, 2021
As I described last week, minor children have been eligible for derivative citizenship in the U.S. since 1790. Minor children who immigrated with their father have automatically become citizens themselves when their father did since the first citizenship laws were enacted. Starting in 1922 when women were allowed to obtain citizenship in their own right, children could derive citizenship from either parent.
In most cases, minor children will not be listed on their father’s naturalization record, at least before 1906. After that time, others who were naturalizing with a parent or spouse were supposed to be listed, although at first this didn’t always happen. This didn’t affect the children’s citizenship status. They were citizens whether they were named or not.
For many genealogists, the net effect of derivative citizenship for children is that no records of those children’s naturalization exist. A genealogist should search for the father’s records. In most cases those records will cover any minor children, as well. However, as in the rest of genealogy, there are always exceptions. If a father died when the children were young or if a father abandoned his family, the children may not have known if their father ever naturalized or not. Those children sometimes applied for naturalization in their own right when they became adults. If you suspect that your ancestors may not have been sure of their own citizenship status, it is worth checking local, state and federal courts for naturalization records for them.
Another fact to keep in mind when thinking of derivative citizenship for children is that a father could only pass on his citizenship to his children if he was actually a citizen himself. Many immigrants filed Declarations of Intent but went no further in the process. Some filed no paperwork at all to become citizens. In these cases, their foreign-born children would have needed to complete the naturalization process themselves to become citizens.
Children could not file for naturalization until they became adults, but some waited much longer than that. In my own family, I discovered a man who came to the U.S. with his parents in 1838, when he was four years old. Since his father never naturalized, he was not a citizen. This occurred despite his living the majority of his life in the U.S. and even serving in the Civil War. He eventually filed for citizenship in 1907, when he was over 70 years old. I found another set of brothers who arrived in the U.S. as children in 1868. Their father filed a Declaration of Intent but never actually naturalized. The sons naturalized in the 1890s, nearly thirty years after their arrival. Cases such as these show that sometimes naturalization records can be found for some minor children who immigrated to the U.S. Sometimes finding these records can require a search of decades of records, so it pays to be persistent.
Even when their father naturalized and gave them derivative citizenship, children who became citizens this way sometimes required proof of their citizenship. This could and can still be done by obtaining a Certificate of Citizenship. These certificates can sometimes be found in home sources among a family’s personal papers. Otherwise, information about obtaining a copy can be found at the United States Custom and Immigration Service-Genealogy Path at https://citizenpath.com/uscis-helps-genealogy-search/ .
Since derivative citizenship for minors has been in effect for over two centuries, it may have affected many of our ancestors. It’s important to be aware of it when searching for naturalization records for non-native born ancestors.
Researcher/Director at Large