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Citizenship records are tough to track

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 5, 2002

Naturalization, the process of becoming an American citizen, is one of genealogy's most daunting research hurdles.

For starters, not all immigrants became citizens. Some filed the initial paperwork and didn't complete the process. Others began the process in one state and finished it in another, which complicated matters because each state had its own way of doing things.

Citizenship papers could be filed in virtually any court having common law jurisdiction, including local, state, federal and even admiralty court. The filing became part of that day's docket, wedged in between other items that came before the court that day.

Moreover, names given to the various local and state courts may have varied by state.

Congress added to the mess by regularly creating laws after the first naturalization act was passed in 1790.

And just as it seemed the situation couldn't get more perplexing, all the rules changed with the formation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1906.

"I find the naturalization records in many cases in a chaotic condition, many lost and destroyed, and some sold for old paper. I find aliens naturalized under initials instead of Christian names, surnames misspelled or changed entirely, and the names of witnesses inserted in place of the alien."

This quote, attributed to a Justice Department investigator in 1903, appears on the National Archives and Records Administration's Web site and aptly depicts the mayhem you'll encounter when delving into naturalization records. (See

(Our mole tells us that the administration has copies of naturalization papers from 1798 to 1906 for Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine, plus the original records for the District of Columbia from 1802 to 1926.

Naturalization is a complex topic. Each person's search is so individualized that it's possible to provide only generalizations. So let's start with the buzzwords.

Naturalization is the procedure by which a foreign-born person becomes a U.S. citizen. Generally, the process goes like this: A person files a Declaration of Intention. After a period of time -- the number of years varies, but five is average -- a Petition for Naturalization is filed. Once the petition is granted, a Certificate of Naturalization is issued.

The declaration and petition contain the genealogical data. There are exceptions, most notably derivative citizenship.

From 1790 to 1922, wives of naturalized men automatically became citizens, and from 1790 to 1940, children under 21 automatically became citizens when their fathers were naturalized. Names of wives and children were seldom included in the paperwork.

Exceptions were also made for veterans. Through the years, various laws were passed to speed the naturalization process for those who served in the armed forces. (You'll find an index to naturalization of soldiers during World War I at the National Archives and Records Administration.)

Sometimes there is no documentation.

When the federal government annexed territories, such as Florida in 1819, Texas in 1845 and Arizona in 1848, inhabitants became citizens. Individuals who came to the colonies from anywhere in the British Empire before the Revolutionary War were merely moving to another part of their country. The key factor in determining where to look for records is 1906, when the INS was established. With its formation came standardization. All courts began using the same forms and guidelines.

More important, the federal government began keeping copies of naturalization records.

Three sets of records are issued for anyone who became a citizen after 1906. The citizen gets one set. The court of jurisdiction -- usually the county of residence -- gets a set. And the INS keeps one. These files contain a copy of the Declaration of Intention, the Petition for Naturalization and the Certificate of Naturalization.

Coming next week: Tips on locating citizenship files.

-- Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at .

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