Tracking Your Past

By Doris Green

Doris Green

United States naturalization documents can tell us much about our ancestor immigrants, however, the laws governing naturalization are complicated. Thanks to genealogy colleague Lisa Imhoff for helping identify key points.

Congress passed the first naturalization act in 1790. Any free, white, adult alien, male or female, who had resided within the United States for two years and in the state of residence for one year was eligible for citizenship. Wives and children of successful applicants, if under age 21, automatically became citizens.

In 1795 Congress increased the residency requirement to five years and instituted a declaration of intent, requiring applicants to declare their intention to become citizens and renounce any allegiance to a foreign king, queen or country three years before admission as citizens.

From 1798 to 1802, as part of the Alien and Sedition acts, the residency requirement increased to 14 years, and the declaration of intent requirement was raised to five years. In 1802 these requirements returned to five and three years. 

In 1870, the naturalization process was opened to persons of African descent.

In 1906, knowledge of English became a requirement for naturalization. Congress also established the basic procedures, beginning with the filing of the declaration of intention. Within a period of two to seven years after filing the declaration, the applicant could petition the court for citizenship. A hearing before a judge was the last step, with the applicant taking an oath of allegiance and the judge granting citizenship. 

Beginning in 1862, veterans no longer needed to file the petition of intent. In 1918 Congress passed an act permitting any alien who had served in the Armed Forces for at least three years to file a petition for naturalization without proof of the residency requirement.

In 1922, Congress changed the naturalization procedure for married women, requiring them to independently meet the requirements of naturalization; however, no declaration of intention was needed, and the period of required residence was reduced to one year.

Early Chinese exclusion laws were repealed in 1943, and in 1946 Congress ended discrimination against Native Americans, finally granting them the right to naturalization. In 1952, the filing of the declaration of intention was eliminated altogether.

You may find naturalization records at www.ancestry.com or www.familysearch.org. They may also exist at county courts or the National Archives. You can request a copy of the certificate of citizenship issued from Sept. 27, 1906, through March 31, 1956, from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Genealogy Program at www.uscis.gov/records/genealogy.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Caves, Mines, and Tunnels.” Also available: “Minnesota Underground,” co-authored with Greg Brick. Visit http://henschelhausbooks.com.