Naturalization Records

The Naturalization Process

In the United States, the naturalization process began with a declaration of the immigrant's intent to become a citizen.  Three years after this declaration was filed—and five years after arriving in the country—a petition for naturalization could be filed, in the same or a different court.  A certificate of citizenship could then be issued.  Until 1922, a foreign-born woman married to a naturalized citizen was automatically made a citizen.  Until 1940, a child under the age of 21 was granted citizenship based on the status of his father.  (For other exceptions, see the National Archives website.)

In U.S. census records from 1900 on, the year of arrival of each naturalized or unnaturalized immigrant was to be recorded.  Also recorded was the naturalization status of the immigrant, whether he was an alien ("Al"), had filed his first papers ("Pa"), or had been naturalized ("Na").

What the Records Show

Early naturalization records vary greatly in genealogical value.  The Declaration of Intent will generally be most useful, and may provide the immigrant's date of birth, his town or county of origin, the dates and places of his departure and arrival, and his residence since emigrating.  Or it may provide very little information.

At the very least, one may find in naturalization records the date one's ancestor became a citizen.  This, in itself, would be a valuable discovery.

One should approach the dates reported in naturalization records with caution.  A study in Sonoma County, California, described in Carmen J. Finley's "Original Naturalization Records: A Reliable Source for Birth Dates?" (National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91:60 (Mar. 2003)), found a 1.3% error rate in birth dates recorded in multiple files—discrepancies ranging from a few days to 23 years (the latter probably due to a clerical error).  As this error rate is only for records in which a birth date was repeated, the actual error rate in reported birth dates is probably much higher.  (Anecdotal evidence supports this conclusion.)  Dates of emigration are often mistaken as well.

Finding the Records

From 1790 until 1906, naturalization records could be filed with any court.  Thus, records of citizenship granted prior to 1906 are scattered throughout municipal, county, state and Federal court records, and may be difficult for the genealogist to track down.  The National Archives does have indexes for naturalizations which occurred in state and local courts in New England, New York City, and the Northern District of Illinois prior to 1906, and maintains all records of U.S. naturalizations performed since then.  Additional indexes for non-federal jurisdictions are available online—some for free and others not—and on microfilm at your local Family History Center.