Posted by Ancestry Team on September 23, 2009 in World Archives Project

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 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.

This index card shows that the Common Pleas Court of New York County granted citizenship to Henry Otto on September 29, 1886.

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.

This declaration of intention provides a detailed portrait of the applicant, Gershon Peck, who immigrated to the United States from Lublin, Russia in 1858.

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 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…


  1. I’d be happy to help out if the application wasn’t written using technology that will only work on one operating system. Take a look at what did for their indexing project. They got things right. Their client runs on every operating system and probably cost them a ton less to develop in both man hours and licensing costs.

  2. Kathy

    I agree with Russell. I am a Mac user and run my computers on the Mac operating system and not Windows. I want to participate in this project, but I do not want to have to purchase and install a new operating system, firewall and other support programs. This would be the only reason for me to run on Windows. please start providing support for Mac users. You may get more people to participate.

  3. Stefanie Condie

    Russell and Kathy, thanks for your comments, which I have forwarded to the product development team for the World Archives Project. My home computer is an iMac, so I can definitely empathize with all the Mac users out there who don’t want to switch platforms.

  4. Valerie


    I’ve given up trying to be hopeful that Mac users will ever receive an actual response in regards to WAP access. I’ve been asking about availability since the “project” was introduced. My queriers have been ignored multiple times and I have only ever received a response once: that the comment would be forwarded to the product development team. This was over a year ago.

    Is there someone who can respond directly from the product development team? Because based on the feedback – or lack thereof – I don’t believe that there are, or ever will be, plans to open this up to Mac users.

  5. I’m a Mac user as well – there seems to be a bit of a theme here. Looking forward to finding out if there are any developments that will allow us to get involved

  6. donna huffer

    I think this would be great to do but unfortunatley I am homeless and living with a family member till things get better and may have to move again so is this work available all the time so I may be able to take advantage of it in the future?I think it would be a great thing to do.
    Thank you,
    Donna Huffer

  7. Alana

    Hi, another Mac user here. I too would love some support for the Mac platform! There are more and more of us every day! We need an uprising!

  8. Jill

    Yet another Mac user chiming in. I’d love to see more support for Mac. I’d be happy to assist with this project, but as others have said, it’s not compatible with my operating system.

  9. Dan

    I agree with Valerie specifically and the group as a whole. You would see a rapid interest in this product if it were an open platform opportunity.

  10. joan hanlon

    Re: The economy
    This is slightly off topic, but goes to the ability to research our family:
    There was an article on CNN today regarding the reluctance of people to come forward and IDENTIFY and/or claim bodies because they cannot afford to bury or cremate them.
    What has our society come to? This is so sad. If they cannot be identified, they will not show up in the SSDI. They will never be found by their descendants.

  11. Andy Hatchett

    Believe me- the story of a body not being able to be buried due to lack of money is one of those types of things that gets handed down from generation to generation- they may not be able to see a headstone but they will, in all likelyhood, know what town they were unclaimed in.

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