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The Immigrant Fascination, Part Five: Citizenship

As recent arrivals in the United States, immigrants made the choice of whether or not they wished to become citizens of a new country.


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As recent arrivals in the United States, immigrants made the choice of whether or not they wished to become citizens of a new country. Those who opted to renounce loyalty to previous sovereigns and declare allegiance to the President of the United States would gain special privileges and underwent a process known as naturalization. This course of action created several important documents that can help genealogists trace immigrant ancestors' foreign origins.

Not everyone deemed it necessary to become a U.S. citizen and federal census records from 1900 through 1930, the most recently released census, indicate whether or not immigrants naturalized or remained aliens.

The resulting paperwork can be categorized into three chronological periods: the Colonial Period, 1790-1906, and post-1906.

Colonial Period

Before the American Revolutionary War, the colonies that later founded the United States belonged to Great Britain. Hence, there was no need for English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh immigrants to alter their political allegiance. However all extra-British Isles nationalities who entered the Colonies during this period did have the opportunity to undergo this process. Lloyd Bockstruck has compiled an index to over 13,000 colonial naturalization records covering immigrants from: Bohemia, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. To learn more see, Denizations and Naturalizations in the British Colonies in America, 1607-1775, available in bookstores and on 1790-1906

The United States passed legislation regarding naturalization in 1790. The new laws stated that a person must have resided in the U.S. for at least two years in order to become a citizen. After that period expired, immigrants could file a "declaration of intent," followed by a three-year wait, at which time a "petition for naturalization" was filled out. There were some exceptions to these rules. For example, wives of men who became citizens automatically received their husband's status during this time period. Children of the couple also automatically became citizens, but if their parents did not naturalize, and they had arrived as minors, they could bypass this process and become citizens through a simpler procedure.

The "declaration of intent" often contains more genealogically valuable information than the later "petition for naturalization." It may or may not identify a specific place of origin. Often, only the foreign sovereign is stated. For German immigrants, however, this can be highly significant. Germany did not become a unified state until 1871, and before that time, immigrants renounced allegiances to rulers of what were much smaller areas than the current country, narrowing down the places a genealogist must search.


With the creation of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in 1906, significant changes in procedure have created more detailed naturalization records. The easiest way to access these records is to contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service, located at 425 Eye St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20536 and request a copy. Post-1906 records pinpoint immigrants' birthplaces.

Finding the Records

Finding naturalization records before 1906 can be a very tricky procedure. Many different courts held jurisdiction over the process of granting citizenship. It is best to start looking in the records of local courts for known residences of the immigrants. It can also be valuable to see if citizenship certificates have survived among an ancestor's effects and have been passed down through the family.

However, many indexes have been made. Minnesota, as an exceptional example, has a statewide index covering the years 1854-1957. For more information, visit the Iron Range Research Center's site.

Read More About It

Naturalization Records (NARA)

"Immigration: Finding Immigration Origins," The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Inc., 1997.

Other Articles in the Series

The Immigrant Fascination, Part One - The Experience

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Two - Departure

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Three - Ocean Passage

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Four - Arrival

The Immigrant Fascination, Part Six - Success in Spite of Record Loss

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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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