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The Compleat Database: Citizenship Matters

Becoming a U.S. citizen is not an instantaneous process and it creates traceable milestones every researcher needs to know


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Resist the temptation to ignore citizenship as a part of your research. Becoming a U.S. citizen is not an instantaneous process and it creates traceable milestones every researcher needs to know. Citizenship is one method of establishing where your ancestor came from.

Regardless of what was reported on the census return, citizenship papers are more reliable. While a census may claim your ancestor came from Russia, the immigration records may show that they actually came from Poland, for example. Using citizenship as a research tool does require learning a thing or two about foreign history. Geographical boundaries change.

The Essentials

Like most genealogical challenges, it is easiest to study the immigration process in reverse. There are certain known facts about immigration to the United States. The timeframe for becoming a U.S. citizen has varied throughout history.

Immigrants must live in the United States a specific number of years before applying to become a U.S. citizen. In 1798, the residency requirement was raised to fourteen years. At other times, it has been as few as two years.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website offers an overview of residency requirements from 1790 to 1996. The document you'll probably use the most is Legislation from 1790-1900.

Using the immigration information helps establish the latest date an immigrant arrived in the United States. New arrivals who intend to become citizens must declare their intention to do so. Following that declaration, they must reside in the country full-time for a specific number of years before applying for citizenship. A third step, often called "third papers," marks the date when the individuals becomes a U.S. citizen.

The residency requirements have continually changed over time, and they vary for minors. In 1824, immigrants who had arrived in the United States as minors were required to reside in the country for only two years, instead of three years, between declaration of intention and achieving citizenship.

During certain years, immigrants were not permitted from specific countries. Beginning early in 1862, Chinese "coolies" were not admitted to the United States, if they arrived on American ships. Knowing that helps narrow a manifest search to specific years for some Chinese ancestors. Also, it helps to understand the term "coolie". A derogatory term, it referred to manual laborers. But, the term is not uniquely Chinese. The term was originally hini or Turkish and has been used to apply to people from India, as well as China. Thus, a "coolie" from India could still arrive on an American ship after the 1862 ruling.

There have been periods of American history during which criminals and prostitutes were shipped to the U.S., with or without their consent. But, by 1875, both were denied entry.

The law will determine when your ancestor could have arrived. If they sailed to America after August 3, 1882, the ship they arrived on would have been charged fifty cents for them to disembark. If your ancestor arrived at that time, they or their captain would have had to have paid the equivalent of about $10 per member of their family before they could set foot on American soil.

Citizenship very much mattered by 1887. As of March of that year, anyone wanting to own land in the United States had to be a citizen or had to have at least declared their intention to become one, with certain exceptions.

It is important to keep in mind that all of these events occurred before Ellis Island became the first Federal immigration station in the United States. Prior to 1890, which is quite late in the history of the United States, Ellis Island was a military port but not involved with immigration.

How To Do The Research

One of the most basic ways to research immigration is to begin with a local newspaper where your ancestor was likely living when they became a U.S. citizen. Search for notices of "third papers." Often, these notices appear in the "Personals" column and are tucked away among accounts of who had dinner together last Sunday evening or who was seen at the local general store last Tuesday.

The third papers are your guide to rebuilding the immigration puzzle. Naturalization residency requirements are consecutive. If an immigrant returns to their native land for a period of time, they probably had to start the residency again based on the rules in effect at the time of their second arrival.

Use the Citizenship and Immigration Services documents listed above to estimate the year your ancestor probably arrived. Since immigrants' names were sometimes changed during the naturalization process, it can sometimes be easier to search by date and location. Then narrow down the choices by name and age.

Depending on the year they were naturalized, look at the legislation reports to determine which rules were in effect. That will tell you the minimum number of years, your ancestor was in this country. Keep in mind that immigrants were not necessarily required to apply for citizenship by a specific date. Although, eventually there were rules requiring that immigrants either apply for citizenship or return to their native country.

Very Early Records

The concept of printed forms and consistent format for citizenship applications is fairly new. If we look at paperwork from 1795, we find such things as a simple handwritten narrative from William Caldwell, labeled "Declaring his intentions." Even in their simplicity, these narratives contain remarkable amounts of information. Caldwell wrote that he was formerly a subject of the King of Great Britain before spending the past four years in Hamburg. He goes on to explain that he was there with the John Parish, the American Consul, before arriving in Pennsylvania.

Not all stories are that interesting. But citizenship paperwork represents an intriguing tapestry and should be included in your database.

Unique Stories

The amount of detail on the original forms can be treasures. In pre-Civil War years, the Louisiana forms were pre-printed forms stating the applicant was "an alien, and a free white person." In 1849, the form also asked that the applicant sign that he or she had been a resident in the United States for more than five years prior. The forms were not always completed. When Lazarus Finer filed his form on November 12, 1849, he did record that he was from Cracow, Poland. But he failed to record how he arrived in the United States, other than he had set foot on American soil on March 25, 1843.

The Civil War brought about all kinds of circumstances. On July 11, 1867, Henry Hoffman was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army for the second time. We know from his handwritten petition that he was an immigrant from Westphalia, Germany.

On October 30, 1860, Peter Whelan filed for citizenship. He claimed that he arrived in the United States during February 1849 and was born in County Kildare, Ireland. He was living in New Orleans when he was granted citizenship.

Citizenship Application Data

The immigration application contains useful information, some of which may come as a surprise. It can include the names of witnesses along with their addresses. The witness is someone who knows the immigrant and maybe even be related. The immigrant's name, date of birth, and place of birth appear on the form. If they are employed, their occupation appears. For example, Joseph H. McElhinney, born in Ireland in 1862, arrived in New York City on May 17, 1892. He was a 30 year old night watchman. He petitioned for citizenship on October 4, 1901, but it was denied. He actually did not become a citizen until almost a year later, on August 6, 1902.

If we start with his naturalization papers, and work backward, we discover that he was originally denied citizenship. That denial tells us McElhinney was in the United States for a year longer than one might have anticipated. Since McElhinney arrived in New York on May 17, 1892, we know that earlier in 1892 we should find his name on a ship's manifest.

Assuming that the citizenship information is accurate, his prior genealogical information would likely be in Ireland, assuming he didn't spend time other than in his hometown before migrating. Without being aware of the initial denial of his citizenship, we might anticipate finding information about McElhinney in Ireland as late as 1893. Now we can rule out that possibility.

We also discovered his age and occupation. We can compare that information to further research. While he might not have always been a night watchman, he was probably a blue-collar laborer. We could probably rule out anyone else with the same name who worked as a physician or a newspaper editor.

Later History

In the very early decades of U.S. history, arrivals did not need to make their arrival known. Eventually, that changed. When a different Joseph McElhiney arrived on March 29, 1909, a variation of the surname spelling was recorded by a government office.

In 1909, immigration was more than recording who was in the country. The U.S. Department of Labor oversaw the immigration service and completed a "Certificate of Arrival - For Naturalization Purposes" for new arrivals. It was a very simple form, issued at Ellis Island, recording the date of arrival and the name of the vessel "or railroad company of any other conveyance" by which they arrived.

Following the paper trail, Joseph McElhinney (signing the traditional surname spelling) filed an Oath of Allegiance on Jun 28, 1921. We now know that between 1909 and 1921, this Joseph McElhinney was residing in the United States. We can reasonably expect to find him among the 1910 U.S. Census.

Managing the Details

Keeping track of all the immigration details is critical to knowing where to search for other records. An ancestor who became a U. S. citizen in 1899 probably was already in this country by 1892. The first U. S. census they would have appeared in would have been the 1900 census. Their name would probably be on a ship's manifest or a passport around 1892. That paperwork would reveal what country they sailed from along with their last known residence. The paperwork would also show if that ancestor came directly to the United States or stopped in Canada or elsewhere along the way. Most importantly, it would show citizenship.

Eventually, the paper trail does lead back to the oldest known ancestor. Knowing the immigration rules serves as a manual for where an ancestor would logically have been at a given point in time. That knowledge saves a tremendous amount of search time.

Coming up . . .

  • Cultural Affinities
  • Education
  • Life Events
  • Death Data
  • Property o Ownership
  • Legal Events
  • Marital Status
  • Politics

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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