Southern California Genealogical Society

Back to Basics: Naturalization Documents: Dig Deep in These Treasures
By Barbara McKinlay

Naturalization records provide such detailed information about immigrants as where they came from, when they arrived, even the boat they came on, who they were going to stay with, their date of birth, place of birth, height, hair color, and even a photograph in some cases.

Often these records are overlooked because, in going through family papers, we come across a naturalization certificate and assume that is all there is. Actually, the certificate is the last thing that is given.

These were the steps that had to be taken:

Declaration of Intention. This is an alien’s first request for citizenship. Sometimes referred to as "first papers" they were often filed in a court near where the immigrant first lived.

Petition of Naturalization. These papers were filed with affidavits that declared the applicant had resided in the country and state for the required length of time. And, these are the papers that will contain the most valuable information.

Certificate of Naturalization. This is a record that indicates the process has been completed and citizenship has been granted. It often gives the birth date, country of origin, and date that it was granted. It sometimes indicates the location of the petition.

Oath of Allegiance. An oath taken pledging loyalty to the adopted country and renouncing any future obligation to the former country. This may be part of the certificate.

The major problem that we run into is that these papers are not necessarily filed in the same court or location. Before the naturalization process was taken over by the federal government, naturalization papers could be filed with any court. Usually that turned out to be the county court that was closest to where the person lived.

Since there were different requirements at different periods of time, background reading is helpful. “The Source” has good information about requirements at different periods of time. So does the “Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives.” Neagles’ “Locating Your Immigrant Ancestors: A Guide to Naturalization Records” is also a fine reference. Filby’s “Passenger and Immigration Lists” can be a help, also, because the port of entry was often where the Declaration of Intention was filed.

Since many of our ancestors moved frequently, the genealogist has to become a real detective to find all parts of the puzzle. Start with the place that the person lived the longest. Write to the county clerk and ask for copies of any naturalization papers on file for the ancestor, being careful to note that you would like to have the complete file, listing all papers.

The census can be used as a tool in some cases; the 1900 and the 1910 federal censuses have important questions regarding naturalization. Passports can also provide clues, as can homestead records, since, in order to file for a homestead, a person had to be a citizen.

There are other clues that naturalization documents may be available. For instance, early on, in order to own land, one had to be a citizen and citizenship was required of people running for public office.

There are many variables to consider in our ancestors’ citizenship records. Black people were excluded from citizenship until 1868, and citizenship was not required of anyone. Many people began the process and did not complete all the steps. Just because you do not find a Certificate of Naturalization, it does not mean that the ancestor did not file a Declaration of Intention or a Petition at a different location or an earlier period.

Dig further until you have exhausted all avenues of inquiry.

Another variable is that men who served with the armed forces were often granted citizenship automatically, without the earlier forms having been filled out.

Until 1922, wives and children were naturalized with their husbands and fathers.

When land was taken over by the United States, the residents became citizens. If they had title to land, they had to validate their title to the land. In California, Florida, Louisiana, Florida and Alaska, these court papers may provide important genealogical information.

If you know that your immigrant ancestor voted, then there should be some kind of record of his citizenship somewhere.

In 1906, immigration records became the property of the federal government, and by 1922, a national index was begun. This made records more easily available. However, for many years, county clerks were not allowed to copy the naturalization records. This is no longer true.

As always, use the resources of your genealogical library in your research. The reference books will be available, as well as an abundance of periodicals that have printed lists of naturalization records that have been granted in various counties.

Naturalization records can provide a vital link in your research. Make sure you check all the possibilities.

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