Understanding U.S. Naturalization Records

by Sunny McClellan Morton | Jun 4, 2013

Sunny McClellan Morton

During the peak years of U.S. immigration, an estimated 75% of eligible arrivals applied for citizenship. This status carried practical protections and rights, from voting to purchasing land (depending on the time and place). Becoming a U.S. citizen was for many a joyful accomplishment and for some a sad and final farewell to their motherland.

The records created as our ancestors naturalized - or the laws that prevented them from doing so - can give us insight into the often elusive experiences of immigrant generations. Here you'll learn more about who could naturalize and how; what the paperwork contains and where to find it; and how one man's naturalization papers are key to confirming his identity - in both the Old world and the New.

History of Naturalization Law

Before 1776, naturalization in British North America was only needed for non-British subjects. Colonial officials required only signed oaths of allegiance as arrivals disembarked from their ships. Technically, an act of Parliament was required for full citizenship until 1740.

The Continental Congress didn't waste time granting citizenship to free whites within its newly-claimed realm. It resolved on June 6, 1776 that everyone living there owed allegiance and were "members" of their respective colonies. However, between 1790 and 1802, various residency and ethnic restrictions were introduced and paper trails initiated.

An 1802 law set policy for more than a century to come. Individuals had to declare their intent to naturalize in court at least three years before they could become citizens. They had to live in the U.S. for at least five years, at least one of those in the state in which their naturalization was finalized. They had to take an oath of allegiance to the United States and renounce all other national allegiances, and they had to demonstrate good moral character and support for the Constitution. Both declarations of intention ("first papers") and the final petitions for naturalization ("second papers") could be filed in just about any court with whatever paperwork that court required. The amount of personal detail requested in this paperwork varied but for the genealogist is often disappointingly sparse.

In 1906, naturalization paperwork was standardized and expanded. Declarations of intention now requested a name, birth date or age, birthplace, address, occupation, nationality, country emigrating from/last foreign residence, marital status and a physical description. The port and date of first entry and the name of ship are also listed. Federal officials double-checked this last information and issued immigration certificates as part of the naturalization process. Final petitions after 1906 request all the above information, plus the date the first papers were filed, names and ages of spouse and children and a few more details--including, after 1929, a photograph. Successful applicants received certificates of naturalization.

Exceptions to the Rules

The process outlined above applied most frequently to men of European descent. Their minor children, until 1940, automatically gained citizenship when a parent naturalized. Before 1922, women were also automatically naturalized when they married a citizen or their husbands naturalized. However, between 1907 and 1922, female citizens who married aliens lost their citizenship (until their husbands naturalized, if eligible). From 1922-1931, women could still not naturalize if married to a man racially ineligible to naturalize (see below). A 1931 law allowed thousands of women to repatriate with an oath of allegiance.

Some ethnic and national groups were barred from citizenship altogether during certain periods of time. Citizenship opened for those of African descent in 1870, the same year Asians were specifically excluded. Asians didn't generally gain naturalization rights until the 1940s. Native Americans born in the U.S., some of whom gained citizenship by various routes, were all granted citizenship in 1924.

During wartime, Congress tempted men to enlist by offering easy naturalization. Civil War enlistees didn't have to file first papers and their residency requirement was lessened. World War I enlistees didn't have to file first papers and their residency restriction was waived. All soldiers had to complete was the final petition and oaths. Similar incentives existed for military enlistees through 1952.

Finding Naturalization Papers

Some immigrant ancestors may never have applied for naturalization themselves. Asking yourself whether a certain ancestor qualified for naturalization may save you many fruitless searches.

However, if your ancestor was among those qualified, it's worth looking for the paper trail. The bad news is that finding naturalizations can be as complicated as understanding the laws behind them. The good news is that many online indexes exist and more are coming.

Our ancestors could file in any court and there's been no centralized index. But the Ancestry World Archives project indexed nearly six million naturalization documents from mostly federal courts a few years ago. These and more are searchable on Ancestry.com. Careful searching of these indexes (and some browsable images) can help you either find an ancestor or eliminate possible courts from your search.

Don't forget to search separately for military naturalizations. Ancestry.com has an online index to World War I soldier naturalizations, taken from the National Archives index in Record Group 85. Ask about local indexes and records at county offices or a local genealogical or historical society (the latter may be willing to do a look-up for you).

Many of our ancestors applied for citizenship in the county court nearest their home. Start your search here. Consult a guide like Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources by Alice Eichholz (available online as part of the Ancestry.com Wiki) or ask a county archivist or local historian which courts handled naturalizations during the time period in question. Naturalizations may be mingled with other court records or kept separately; women's papers and oaths before the 1930s may be filed separately.

Some records are on microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and available for rental through a FamilySearch Center near you. If you do not find your immigrant relatives in the counties surrounding their home, use a similar search process to check state-level naturalization indexes and records. Most federal records have been indexed; the National Archives and Records Administration has a guide to their holdings. Contact the National Archives regional facility that serves your ancestors' locale for copies of the records.

An Example: Andro Ochotniczky's Naturalization

Caroline Novojovky O'Hotnicky (1866-1937) raised several children as an immigrant widow in Olyphant, Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania. Her husband appears in no census records with her: he arrived after 1880 and was dead before 1900. Parish records of the children's baptisms and local land records confirm the father and husband was Andro Ochotniczky. A tombstone with his name ("died 19 Jan 1898, age 38") is next to hers in the church cemetery.

Caroline's census records claim she naturalized in 1890. The couple was most likely married by then; they were expecting their fourth child. So Caroline would have derived her naturalization from his.

The Court of Quarter Sessions of Lackawanna County records a final petition for naturalization for "Andrew Ohotnecki" dated 4 October 1890, with an arrival date in Philadelphia of 7 June 1882. He is listed as Austrian by birth, which in that time period included many of Slovakian heritage. Part of a copy of the microfilmed image is shown below:


This record doesn't offer much information: just an arrival date and possibly a signature. The date and place of arrival may lead to a passenger list, eventually linking him to other relatives or friends.

However, exactly two years prior, Andro filed first papers with the county's Clerk of Judicial Records (Civil), also taken from microfilm:


This record lists his birthdate as 29 November 1859--consistent with the age shown on the 1898 tombstone, confirming that this is the right man. Andro's children's baptismal records list both parents' birthplace as the tiny Slovakian village of Forbasz, county Spis. These clues point to a parish baptismal record in Forbasz for Andreas Ochotniczky, 16 November 1859, son of Joannes Ochotniczky and Anna Missnik. No matching birth record has been found for his wife, but the parish record book is packed with Novojovskys--her surname.

Andro's signature in the first papers matches the signature on the previous record, indicating that this is his own and not the clerk's:


Though records relating to Andro's life are few, taken together they provide his likely birthplace, birth date, parentage and even his signature. The naturalization papers--both first and second--are a vital part of the trail. Additional research into his arrival and the arrivals of others of his surname from the same village may further enlarge his known family tree.


Naturalization records can be difficult to locate. However, they give us insight into our ancestors and clues for further research. Keeping in mind the laws in effect at the time that our ancestors would have gone through the naturalization process will help us have more success in using these records.

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