Before a person could become a citizen of the United States, they have to file a Declaration of Intention form with any local court. Early copies of this document contained little more than the name and address of the person who filed it. This document can be your first link to your ancestor's origins.
By the end of the 19th century, the Declaration of Intention also contained the name and address of the court where the person filed it and the filing date, the age, date of birth, occupation, and residence at the time of the person, as well as their physical description. You'll also find the
overseas port from which they immigrated and the name of ship, arrival date, and port of entry of the ship they sailed on. Later versions also give the name of the country of birth, and, in some cases, even the location of their birth.
So the earlier the date a person filed these documents, the less information you'll find. Just the filing of a Declaration of Intention indicates that the person was an immigrant and perhaps had not been in the United States very long.
Of all ancestral documents, the Declaration of Intention is the only one that gives any detailed information as to what a person looked like. This prevented anyone from stealing the document and using it to obtain U.S. citizenship. It also prevented the sale of this document to a known criminal who had already been denied citizenship. After 1906, the Declaration of Intention also included a photograph of the applicant. This made it doubly difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to use the document of another person.
The Petition for Naturalization could also be filed in any court, simply by producing a court-certified copy of the Declaration of Intention. This document included the name, home address, occupation , birth date or age, former nationality, date and port of arrival in America, name and address of two witnesses, date and court of naturalization. The names and addresses of the witnesses can offer valuable clues since usually petitioners asked close relatives to be witnesses for them.
Like the Declaration of Intention, the Petition for Naturalization provides you with a direct link between where the person may be now–even if it's in an American cemetery–and where they came from. You'll find the Declaration of Intention in pre-1906 naturalizations more valuable because it usually includes a person's date of arrival in the U.S., as well as the name of the ship. Unfortunately, you may have a hard time locating your ancestor's Declaration of Intention because they may have filed it in a different court other than their Petition for Naturalization, so it may be buried in that court's records. If that's the case, you'll have to rely on their Petition of Naturalization.
This document also included the name, date of birth and date of death if deceased, of the person's spouse, as well as the date the spouse entered the U.S. and the name they used at the time,
their last foreign residence, names and birth dates of all children.
After 1906, a person's naturalization papers came in two parts. When the court granted the petition, it issued a certificate conferring citizenship. But this certificate contained little more than the petitioner's name.