March 5, 2021
The United States has always been a country of immigrants. That seems like it would lead to a nation of naturalized citizens, but that hasn’t necessarily been true. Exactly why this happened is probably personal to each immigrant. Some didn’t intend to stay in the U.S., others may not have qualified for citizenship for various reasons, some may have lacked the English to finalize paperwork. For others the fact that naturalization was not free may have been the factor which swayed the decision not to naturalize. Even during the high immigration period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, over 25% of immigrants didn’t bother with naturalization.
If you have ancestors who immigrated to the United States during that period, you may want to do some research into why those ancestors chose to be naturalized or not. You may find yourself losing some pre-conceived notions about immigrants and their desire to become Americans.
My third great grandfather, Parshall Peter Terry and his younger brothers John May and George Thompson Terry were born in the 1830s in Canada. Before the three brothers were of school age, the family crossed the border into the United States. All of the brothers lived until they were in their eighties and spent all of those years in the U.S. Their naturalization history shows how casually some immigrants regarded citizenship.
Had the Terry brothers’ father naturalized before they reached adulthood, derivative citizenship would have automatically been theirs. He didn’t, so they needed to naturalize if they wanted to be citizens. For decades none of the three bothered. Parshall Peter, the eldest, travelled with the Mormon pioneers to Utah when he was just a teen ager. He never naturalized in spite of living for the rest of his life in Utah. He even filed a homestead claim in the 1870s. As part of the requirements for the land grant, applicants had to be citizens or in the process. Parshall Peter not only didn’t file for citizenship, he lied and swore on his deposition that he was a “native born citizen.” Apparently, no one questioned his veracity, since his application for a homestead was granted. There are even later voter registration records in his name. Even though, as a non-citizen, he was certainly not entitled to vote.
The next brother, John May, served in the Civil War as a soldier for the Union. Serving as a U.S. soldier made it easier to claim citizenship, but John did not. He finally petitioned and was granted citizenship when he was 78 years old in 1907. It seems obvious that he did so only because he wanted to qualify for a homestead grant in eastern Colorado.
The last brother, George Thompson, never did become a U.S. citizen. He also served as a Union soldier in the Civil War, but apparently he saw no benefit in citizenship. As late as 1920, when he was 82 years old, George is listed as “Al” for alien on the U.S. census. His second wife, whom he’d married just the year before, was also listed as an alien, even though she’d been born in Wisconsin. During this period a woman lost her citizenship when she married a non-citizen.
At least in my family, citizenship doesn’t seem to have been an important goal for some immigrants. In the days before strict record keeping, no one questioned them about their citizenship. After decades, the whole issue may have seemed unimportant to them.
Whatever their reasons, the Terry’s offer insight into a little remembered group of people – immigrants who lived their lives in America but were not citizens. The Terry’s are not my only ancestors who never naturalized or who did so late in life after decades in the United States. You may be surprised to find that you too have immigrants in your family tree who never became Americans. Since one in four immigrants never naturalized, it’s worth checking. You may fain a new perspective into your family story.
Researcher/Director at Large