A Brief History of the Naturalization Process in the United States
Naturalization is the legal procedure by which an alien becomes a citizen of a state or country. Every nation has different rules that determine citizenship. In the United States, naturalization is a judicial procedure that flows from Congressional legislation. However, from the time the first naturalization act was passed in 1790 until 1906, there were no uniform standards. As a consequence, before September 1906, the various federal, state, county, and local courts generated a wide variety of citizenship records that are stored in sundry courts, archives, warehouses, libraries and private collections.
What Can I Learn from Naturalization Documents?
Because almost everyone is curious about where their ancestors and relatives came from, as well as if, when and where they became American citizens, naturalization records are in high demand. The biographical information in citizenship papers assumes importance as a link to the past, and sometimes represents the only way to discover the Old World origins of an individual or a family.
Another value of citizenship papers is that they often fill the gaps where other records are missing. For example, most states did not require the registration of births and deaths until well after 1900 and in some cases a date on a naturalization document may be the only means of discovering when an individual was born.
Inconsistencies of Information Provided in Naturalizations Documents Created Before 1906
Generally speaking, most pre-1906 naturalization papers contain little information of biographical value. In the absence of standardized naturalization forms, federal, state, county and other minor courts of record created their own documents, which varied greatly in format. In the majority of cases, only the name of the individual, his or her native country, and the date of the naturalization are given; rarely is the exact town of origin named. There are, however some wonderful exceptions so it is worth seeking pre-1906 citizenship documents. Depending on the state and county, a number of early records do include the name of the town, exact birthdate, date of departure from home country, and arrival date in the United States.
Standardized Information Provided in Naturalization Documents Created After 1906
Petitions for naturalization, particularly after 27 September 1906, provide the full name of the applicant, his or her current address (in the U.S.), occupation, age, birth date, birthplace, sex, complexion, eye color, hair color, height, weight, visible distinctive marks, and current and former citizenship. Post-1906 naturalization forms ask for marital status. If married, the applicant was asked the name of the spouse, marriage date, marriage place, birth date and birthplace of spouse date and place of spouse’s entrance to the United States, and current residence of spouse. The form also asked whether or not the spouse was a naturalized citizen and, if the answer was yes, where and when the naturalization took place. The applicant was further asked the number of children born to him or her and the date and place of birth of each, and where and when his or her lawful admission for permanent residence in the United States took place. The signature of the applicant completed the first section of the petition. The second part of the petition consisted of the affidavit of witnesses. It included their names and addresses and sworn and signed statements of their knowledge of the applicant. Beginning in 1929, declarations of intention included a photograph of the individual.
Where Do I Start?
To begin the search for an immigrant’s origins, learn as much as you can about that person, including full name, approximate birth date, native country, approximately when that person came to the United States, and where that person lived after his or her arrival in the United States.
Before 1906, any federal, state or local court of record could naturalize citizens, so tracking down the court is usually the first course of action. Fortunately, many naturalization indexes are available online.
Click on the “Search” tab at Ancestry and then on the link to the Citizenship & Naturalization Records category to search the millions of naturalization records that have been indexed and some naturalizations documents that have been digitized. To honor your ancestor’s decision to become a citizen, you can also attach these records to your online tree at Ancestry.
To help you track many of the online collections of naturalization records, visit Joe Beine’s website.
While millions of naturalization records are online at Ancestry and elsewhere, not all court records or their indexes have been digitized. In some cases, you may need to search by state, county or at the local level to find the court where your ancestor was naturalized. Almost every state, most county and many local governments have great archives and websites where you can learn more about the records that were kept for the area where your immigrant ancestors lived. Many have detailed descriptions of any naturalization record holdings.
The Process of Becoming a U.S. Citizen
Aliens intending to be naturalized citizens first filed a declaration of intention to become a citizen of the United States and renouncing allegiance to a foreign sovereign. The declaration usually preceded proof of residence or a petition to become a citizen by two or more years. After five years (except for a brief period when the laws changed) an alien could petition a court to be naturalized. Many individuals waited for more than the required five years to complete the naturalization process and in some years, those honorably discharged from the military service did not have to file a declaration of intention and the waiting period was shortened. Some filed their declarations and for one reason or another may never have completed the process with the petition to be naturalized. The final step was the actual naturalization. The alien received a certificate of naturalization, and that record would have gone with him or her, and a “stub” was typically retained by the court.
Women and children generally did not need to apply for separate citizenship as they derived citizenship either from their fathers or their spouses. Non-native children became citizens when their father was naturalized. Between 1855 and 1922, an alien woman became a citizen automatically if she married an American citizen. Relatively few single women became naturalized before 1922, and married women could not be naturalized unless they were widowed or divorced. Women twenty-one years of age were entitled to citizenship in 1922 and derivative citizenship was discontinued. For more information on women and the naturalization process, see this article from the National Archives’ Prologue magazine.