Immigration and Naturalization Research: Part 1

Sep 30, 2021 | by Katie Rebecca Garner

Family stories may have been passed down about an immigrant ancestor. Or the immigrant ancestor is discovered after tracing the family back several generations in the U.S. In either case, immigration research needs to be conducted on that ancestor before tracing the family in the home country is possible.

The first part of this series will discuss naturalization and the second part will discuss immigration. Even though the immigrant ancestor would have immigrated before naturalizing, research on a person’s life is usually conducted backwards, so it is likely you would be looking for your ancestor’s naturalization records before searching their immigration records.

Genealogy Blog

About Naturalization

Naturalization is the process in which an immigrant becomes a citizen. Immigrants to the U.S. have never been required to naturalize; however, naturalization would grant citizenship and all associated privileges including voting and owning land. There has always been a time requirement of residency before an immigrant was allowed to naturalize. For most of U.S. history, that time has been five years. A good reference place for naturalization laws is the FamilySearch wiki.

The first step of naturalization is to file a declaration of intent, or the first papers. The next step is to file a petition for naturalization or second papers. Once the petition is accepted, the immigrant is granted a certificate of naturalization. There could be several years between the first papers and the second papers. If the immigrant moved during that time, the declaration of intent and the petition for naturalization could be filed at different courts. Sometimes an immigrant ancestor started the process but never completed it.

For immigrants who served in the military, this process was simplified. In most cases, only the petition for naturalization was required and the required residency time was reduced to one year.

U.S. passports have only been granted to U.S. citizens. If your immigrant ancestor had a U.S. passport, this indicates that they naturalized.

Ancestry Blog

History of naturalization in the U.S.

Before the Revolutionary war, British settlers to the colonies had no need to naturalize because they were still in British territory. Settlers from other countries had to naturalize if they wanted the privileges of British citizenship. At this time, there were different levels of naturalization available, including denization which granted the right to own land but not the right to vote.

Until 1906, each individual court had their own naturalization form. Consequently, the information contained on the naturalization papers is inconsistent between courts. Some courts required more information for the declaration of intent than for the petition for naturalization, while some courts had it the other way around. If an ancestor was naturalized between 1790 and 1906, it is best to obtain both papers.

Between 1798 and 1828, new immigrants were required to appear before a local court to register their arrival in the U.S. This was usually recorded in the court minutes, but sometimes a separate document was created. The immigrant could later obtain a certificate to prove he registered his immigration, and present that certificate when applying for naturalization.

In 1906, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was created. This resulted in standardized forms across the country. Naturalization still occurred in local courts, but they sent a copy of the forms to the Bureau of immigration and Naturalization.

Collective citizenship is when a group of people is naturalized by an act of congress and no individual paperwork is done. This includes the birth of the U.S., when all residents of the former colonies became U.S. citizens; after the Civil war, all African Americans were made citizens; the Louisiana purchase and other times the U.S. obtained land, all residents of that land became U.S. citizens.

Family History Blog

Finding Naturalization Records

The first step in finding naturalization records is having an idea of when and where the ancestor may have naturalized. If the ancestor lived during the 19th century, the 1820, 1830, 1840, and 1870 censuses state if the ancestor is an alien or citizen. If the ancestor lived during the 20th century, those censuses give clues to immigration and naturalization. The 1920 census includes the years of immigration and naturalization.

Before looking for naturalization records, it is helpful to know where the immigrant ancestral family lived since arriving in the U.S. Federal and state censuses, tax lists, land records, and city directories can provide a paper trail showing where the ancestral family has lived. Check the local courts of every area the ancestor lived for naturalization records.

The Family History Library and National Archives contain naturalization and citizenship records. Ancestry has 142 online collections of naturalization records in the U.S. and 15 online collections of passport and border crossing records in the U.S. The FamilySearch wiki contains list of resources kept at the state level; to find naturalization records for the state your ancestor lived in, check the wiki page for the state(s) your ancestor lived in. Remember that not all records are online, so it may be necessary to contact the court where the naturalization may have occurred to request records.

Often, the naturalization records provide clues about the immigration, which can be helpful in finding the immigration records. This was the case with Joseph McElhinney, who arrived in America in 1909. When he registered for the draft for WWI in 1917, he was an alien, not having yet naturalized. His WWII draft registration form did not ask for citizenship status. He was an alien on the 1920 census but naturalized on the 1930 census; this indicates that he naturalized in the 1920s.

Joseph McElhinney naturalized in Pennsylvania in 1921.  The ancestry database containing his naturalization records has his declaration of intention, certificate of arrival, petition for naturalization, and oath of allegiance all together. Joseph had married and had three children by the time he was naturalized, so his children’s names and birthdates are listed on his petition for naturalization. Multiple of these records indicate that he arrived in New York on 29 March 1909 on the Caledonia, and had left from Londonderry, Ireland.

Once you have researched your ancestor’s naturalization, the next step is to research their immigration. This will be covered in the next part of this series.

Katie Rebecca Garner

Katie has been involved with genealogy since 2014. She has a degree in Applied Science in Family History Research from BYU-Idaho, and is pursuing an AG through ICAPGen. Katie specializes in U.S. Mid-Atlantic and is currently developing curricula to teach genealogy to children.

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