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How Can Naturalization Records Help Your Research? Part I

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Written by Jamie Drake

Naturalization records can be a treasure trove of information for a researcher, provided they are there.  Here is a quick breakdown of how naturalization records came about and evolved, where the records might be, and what information might be found on them.  It is important to remember that the United States of America has never required any foreign citizen to declare themselves as naturalized or take the oath of allegiance.

Naturalization is the process of denouncing an allegiance and accepting a new one. Naturalizations have occurred in the United States since colonial times turning immigrants from outside of the British Empire into citizens.  After the revolution of 1776, the now United States of America continued using the system previously established by the British empire and began to grant citizenship in various levels.

  • People in the U.S. during the American Revolution and after, with exceptions of Africans and their descendants and the First Americans, became citizens by way of collective citizenship. Basically, if you lived there, you were a new American.
  • Immigrants entering after 1776 might have the option of Denization or the Oath of Allegiance.  Denization was used for business purposes, mainly to buy and sell land, but this came with the rule that they could not participate in political matters or decisions.  
  • Oath of Allegiance was a second option.  This process was cosnidered a formal renunciation of all former loyalties. What we now recognize as naturalization. This option essentially made the oath taker an American and they were allowed all the rights of natural citizens.

After 1790, things changed with the first naturalization law. The courts still handled the naturalizations, but what part of the court heard and decided on it was up to the local governing authority.  Still, there is no requirement to become a citizen, no timeline when any declaration of intent must be made and children born in the United States were automatically granted citizenship. What the law did do was declare that a person (men only at this time) seeking naturalization must do so in a court of law, be a resident of the US for 5 years, and have lived in the state of application for at least 1 year.

There were three parts to a typical naturalization that created a paper trail.  These are Declaration of Intention, Petition, and Certificate.  These varied in when they could be used (as far as waiting periods for residency) or when the petition could be heard (between 1-3 years).  The final result would be three signed documents, however, all three may not have been used, or the naturalization might have been filed but never completed. When searching for these records it is necessary to know in which court the naturalizations might have been heard.  Check the local courts, the state courts, and substitute courts in times of war or other interruptions.  Also, know the state rules for if and when there is a time lapse between ability to make a declaration of intent and if there was a waiting period before the petition could be heard.

The forms for Intention, Petition, and Certificate varied widely during this time.  The information on them would likely include the petitioners name, date and place where they arrived, age, and country of origin.  Sometimes, other information is included such as current residence, family names, or occupation. Until the 1920’s women and children did not receive naturalization and any forms which required them to fill in a “date naturalized” would reference their husband or father’s date.  Look for Naturalization Records Part II to learn more about how naturalization records changed and what to expect when trying to find them.


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