The other day I took a break from obsessing about the stock market, health care reform and climate change to key some naturalization records for the Ancestry.com World Archives Project. I happened to get a batch of index cards for German immigrants who came to New York in the late 1800s. As I typed in the relevant fields, I found myself making connections between these immigrants and my own family story.
The first card was for a brewer, which reminded me that my Bavarian great-grandfather had worked for a brewery — driving a horse-drawn beer cart, just like the guy in the old Budweiser commercials. The next card was for a baker, which brought to mind my great-uncle Ludwig, who’d owned a bakery. The baker’s card shows his birth date, former nationality, date of arrival in the United States, date of naturalization and address in New York City. Henry (formerly Heinrich?) Otto immigrated in 1881, at the age of 16, and received his citizenship in 1886, after fulfilling the five year residency requirement.
Ever since 1795, U.S. naturalization has required two separate applications. The first application is called a Declaration of Intention (also known as the “First Papers”). The second application, filed at least three years later — after the immigrant has been in the country for at least five years — is called a Petition for Naturalization or Petition for Admission to Citizenship (also known as the “Second Papers” or “Final Papers”).
Before 1906, any court at the local, state or federal level could grant petitions for naturalization. In 1906, Congress established the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, which standardized naturalization forms and processes. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration systematically indexed the pre-1906 court records for New York and several other northeastern states. The index card above for Henry Otto was created during that period, several decades after Otto received his citizenship.
After keying a few index cards, I tried some original citizenship applications, including both declarations and petitions. These documents contain dozens of details about the applicant, including age, occupation, physical features, birth date and place, current address, date of arrival, name of the ship that brought the applicant to the United States, last place of residence in the native country, and names and ages of the applicant’s spouse and children.
By the time I finished keying Gershon Peck’s declaration, I’d outlined a whole screenplay in my head about his epic journey from Lublin (in present-day Poland) to Liverpool, his sea voyage to Philadelphia and his adventures in the new world. Unfortunately Leonardo Di Caprio is probably too tall to play the leading role. But imagining Peck’s exhausting, perilous travels, the persecution he was likely fleeing and the challenge of adjusting, rather late in life, to a new culture made me appreciate my relatively pampered existence — and the sacrifices my own ancestors made to start a new life in this country.
If you’re interested in getting involved, now is a great time to join the Ancestry.com World Archives Project because several sets of naturalization records are available for keying, including index cards from California, Illinois, New York, Montana and Washington, and original declarations and petitions from California, New York and Pennsylvania. The index cards are super easy. The originals take a little more work, but they’re fascinating to read. Who knows? One of them might just inspire you to write a novel about a paper hanger from Eastern Europe who immigrated to the United States a few years before the Civil War…
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