Naturalization is the method by which a foreign person, or “alien,” becomes a citizen. It
is a voluntary act and is not required under United States law. The first Naturalization Act was passed in 1790. At that time, most naturalizations occurred in the court nearest to the individual being naturalized, which could have been the county court or the federal court. The naturalization process took about five years. After two years of living in the country, the alien would file papers stating his or her Declaration of Intent to Naturalize (or “First Papers”). After three more years, the alien could then file a Petition for Naturalization. Generally, the Declaration of Intent records have more information that is beneficial to genealogists than the actual Petition.
The first thing to note when looking for naturalization records is that you will not find them for women between 1790 and 1922. Women and children under the age of 21 would be automatically naturalized when their husband or father became naturalized. If an alien woman married a U.S. citizen, she would automatically become naturalized. This process worked in the reverse as well. When a woman married someone who was not a U.S. citizen, she lost her citizenship to the United States even if she continued to live in the country. Additionally, children could file their Declarations and Petitions at the same time if they lived in the country five years before their 23rd birthday from 1824 until 1906.
1906 was a great year for genealogists in terms of added information to the naturalization records. In 1906, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was formed. After the Bureau’s formation, more information was included on the naturalization records and the forms became standardized. This also meant that more information about women and children were included in the records.
In 1862, a law was enacted to allow Army veterans who had been honorably discharged to petition for naturalization after living for a year in the United States. In 1894, a law was enacted to include Navy and Marine veterans. Later, thousands of men were naturalized through a law enacted on May 9, 1918, which allowed aliens serving in the U.S. military to file a Petition for Naturalization while they were serving in the present war, World War I. More laws of this kind were enacted in 1919, 1926, 1940, and 1952 giving special treatment to veterans.
A major and frustrating aspect about naturalization records is that there is not a great way to locate them. The records for naturalizations that took place at federal courthouses should reside with the National Archives. The records for naturalizations that took place at county courthouses may still reside within the specific county. However, some records from county courthouse nationalizations have been sent to the National Archives, compounding the difficulty of the search.
The best source for finding naturalization records is the FamilySearch wiki
. The website has a great overview of naturalization records. The overview then has a link to a page for each state’s naturalization records. The state pages will assist with finding where the specific naturalization records are located.