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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

US Naturalization Records Every Genealogist Must Explore

US naturalization Records Every Genealogist Should Know

In the United States, every family tree has an immigrant ancestor. The only question is when did the migration take place. The follow-up question should be, "Which naturalization records will help me trace my ancestor?"

Depending on the period in history that your ancestor arrived in America, you may be blessed to find naturalization records full of incredible details about your ancestor. You may discover physical descriptions, occupations, arrival dates, and citizenship dates, in addition to the names dates, and places you need to prove identity and relationships.

Watch this video.

Understand the Naturalization Paper Trail

As immigrants moved into the United States of America, a process evolved to accept new citizens. By so doing, our ancestors were granted the right to own land, participate in government, and more.

The naturalization process took many years and had several steps to complete. Amie Bowser Tennant, The Genealogy Reporter, suggests we "learn the laws of naturalization. It changed over time. Depending on when your ancestor began the naturalization process, your search strategies will change."

A typical progression of paperwork included the following.

Declarations of Intention

From 1795 - 1952, a citizenship applicant declared their intent to renounce their allegiance to foreign governments. Many immigrants upon arrival, but some delayed this step.

The amount of detail available on such records depend on which locality created the documents and when. In my research, some declarations only list the date of the declaration, the person's name (not always full), and the nation they are renouncing their allegiance.

Other documents, particularly those created after 27 Sept 1906, may have the applicant's name, country of birth or allegiance, date of the application, signature, port and date of arrival, and witnesses.

Naturalization Petitions

After filing the Declaration of Intention, a prospective citizen needed to meet residency requirements before completing the process. The petitions are often called Second or Final Papers.

Typically, an applicant needed to reside in the US for 5 years. However, between 179 and 1802, the requirement was raised to 14 years. The residency could happen in multiple locations and not necessarily the same location where they filed their Declaration of Intent.

Did Children File These Papers?

Foreign-born minor children of immigrating parents derived their citizenship from their parents. Their status became official typically when the father naturalized. Children who reached the age of majority typically had to complete their own naturalization process.

Did Women File Naturalisation Papers?

While a few women appear in naturalization records, most derived their citizenship through marriage.

  • An immigrant married woman derived their citizenship from their spouse's naturalization until 1922.

  • Between 1855 and 1922, foreign-born women automatically became citizens of the US if they married an American citizen.

Certificates of Arrival

Certificates of arrival were first issued under the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906, which went into effect on 27 September 1906. The Immigrant listed the port name, date, and ship of arrival on a standardized form. These certificates are generally included in a naturalization records C-file.

Oaths of Allegiance Ceremonies

Once an applicant completes the paperwork and residency period, many locations held a citizenship ceremony to complete the naturalization process. Typically, numerous individuals swore their Oath of Allegiance on the same day and a roster of new citizens was recorded in the local courthouse records.

The list of new citizens rarely has any identifying details other than their name and the name of their sponsor or witness.

Certificate of Naturalization

After the Oath of Allegiance occurred, citizenship petitioners received documents proving their status. You may find a Certificate of Naturalization in your home records. However, some certificates appear in naturalization packets.

You may not always find every type of record for your ancestor. Slightly different records were kept during different time periods. In some cases, all of the records are combined together in a single petition and record file.

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Tips for Finding Naturalization Records

Before you dive into naturalization records, you need to gather as many clues as possible. Also, be open to your ancestors arriving in places you didn't expect.

Thomas MacEntee, of Genealogy Bargains. said, "Often, the family story might say they arrived at Ellis Island, but they may have settled in Boston and was naturalized there. Also be open to arrival at other ports such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, etc."

Follow these steps and tips before you dive into the citizenship papers for your ancestor.

  1. Recognize not all immigrants chose to become citizens.

  2. Not every immigrant rushed to become an immigrant. Search naturalization dates decades after their arrival.

  3. Search US Records for clues about your ancestor's year of immigration to know when to begin searching naturalization records.

    1. Search for details about their Place of Origin, birth year, arrival, length of residence.

    2. Seek answers in burial records, obituaries, military records.

  4. Create a timeline for your ancestor after arriving in the United States.

    1. Researchers at Trace said such a timeline that includes the ancestor’s addresses and occupations during the time they may have been working through the naturalization process can provide valuable clues as to where they may have filed their paperwork.

  5. Look for process status and dates of immigration in CENSUS RECORDS.

    1. Look for the column in the 1900 to 1940 census records to determine if a person completed their naturalization process.

    2. Helpful abbreviations to know include AL=Alien; NA=Naturalized; NR=Not Reported; PA=First Papers Filed.

    3. The 1920 census also includes the year of naturalization.

  6. Search for PASSENGER LISTS AND SHIP MANIFESTS to create a timeline of when the naturalization process might have begun. If a citizen traveled after completing the naturalization process, such details may appear on these travel papers.

    1. Search for the name used before settling in America. This could be the original linguistic form of the name (Geißler vs Geiszler).

    2. Search for women by their maiden and married surnames.

    3. If you can't find your ancestor, search for their children, their parents, or their siblings.

    4. Do a No Surname Search - if you know the port of arrival, search passenger records for the first name with a birth year, place of origin, and/or arrival year.

  7. Search NEWSPAPERS - Some newspapers published the names of new arrivals. Some published the names of new citizens.

  8. Search for clues in LAND RECORDS

    1. Following the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, immigrants had to file at least a declaration of intention before they could apply for land.

    2. When the immigrant wanted to secure the homestead patent after five years, he had to have become a citizen.

    3. As such, you may discover copies of naturalization records along with a homestead application.

  9. Some immigrants joined the Union Army during the Civil War to expedite their citizenship.

    1. They didn't have to complete a Declaration of Intention and their residency requirement was reduced.

    2. However, if the veteran applied for a pension, you may discover immigration documents in the packet.

After compiling all of these clues, it's time to dive into the naturalization records listed above. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  1. Always seek out the original records if you first find an index. The original documents usually have rich details for your research beyond what could reasonably fit on an index card.

  2. Most applications have at least two documents. When looking at original records be sure to look a the page before and after any document you find. You don't want to miss 'the rest of the story.'

  3. Update your genealogy research plan with successful and unsuccessful searches.

  4. If you can't find your ancestor directly, then search for extended family and neighbors.

    1. Many people migrated in groups that included their kin and their neighbors.

    2. Some even Declared their Intent on the Same Day (or attended their citizenship ceremony on the same day).

  5. I loved this tip from professional genealogist Miles Meyer, "see if you can find records for their siblings. Each person may provide a little bit of different information."

Once you find any of your ancestor's naturalization documents, keep your research trail going. Proceed to investigate church records, censuses, land records, and newspapers in your ancestor's homeland to continue building your ancestor's tree and learning their story.

If you need help researching naturalization records for your ancestors, contact the professionals at Trace. They have talented researchers all over the world to help you find any record you need. Use this link to get a $50 discount off your initial deposit when you set up a project with Trace.

Explore the Following Record Collections to Trace Your Ancestors Online

Once you know the history of immigration, you will know where citizenship records were collected. In the early centuries, counties and states managed the naturalization process and the relevant documents.

According to Cyndi Harlin, Cathy Hong, Ericka Grizzard, professional genealogy researchers with Trace, "Keep in mind that naturalizations could be filed at courts at the city and county level, state-level or federal level, so searches will most likely take place in multiple locations and many of these records are not digitized or available online anywhere."

National-Level Collections

United States Naturalization Petitions (1905 to 1950) - This collection from Findmypast currently contains pre-printed forms completed by immigrants in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. (Example) Many of these records have photographs of your ancestors!

U.S., Naturalization Records Indexes, 1794-1995 - This collection covers U.S. District and Circuit courts and primarily contains indexes to declarations and petitions.

State-Level Naturalization Records

Each year, more naturalization indexes and original documents become available online. Here are a few collections to explore.

More Genealogy Records to Search

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