Becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States was a huge event in the lives of our ancestors. Naturalization certificates were prized possessions. They were often proudly displayed in frames hung on parlor walls. If you are lucky, you have one of those certificates in your possession that was granted to one of your immigrant ancestors. You would be fortunate not only because it has survived in your family through the years, but because it is the product of a “minority event;” that is, most immigrants did not become naturalized citizens.
If you know that your ancestor became a naturalized citizen, whether you have the naturalization certificate or not, there is considerable documentation you can get surrounding that event. The certificate itself is the end point of a process that took several years and several pieces of paper. The laws governing the process changed over the years, but in general the process consisted of three steps and four major documents.
The first step in becoming a naturalized citizen was to file a Declaration of Intention to become a citizen. This declaration was also referred to as “first papers.” The purpose was to formally renounce any allegiance to a foreign power and to declare an intention to become a citizen. This was normally completed soon after arrival in the US.
The next step was to file a Petition for Citizenship—called “second papers.” A person normally had to wait five years after previously filing the declaration before the petition could be entered. Seven years was the outside limit. After that amount of time, if no petition had been filed, the process would have to start all over again. The purposes of the petition were to confirm that the naturalization requirements had been satisfied and to request the granting of citizenship.
The next step was the signing of an Oath of Allegiance, which again renounced any allegiance to a foreign power in favor of allegiance to the United States. That was followed by the presentation of the Certificate of Naturalization.
Another document entered this process after June 1906: it was the Certificate of Arrival. After the second papers were submitted (on which the applicant stated the immigration date, port, and ship arrived on,) a verification clerk at the port of entry would locate the manifest, confirm the information, and complete the certificate of arrival. That would be sent back to the naturalization court. This step was added to the process to help prevent naturalization fraud: prevent ineligible aliens from becoming citizens and preventing more than one person from claiming the same arrival record as a basis for naturalization.
The courts played the major role in the naturalization process. Each of the submissions had to be done at a court of record. It was the court where the oath was signed, and it was the court that granted the final certificate. Not surprisingly then, any search for documentation should start at the appropriate court. Unfortunately there may be many courts involved since the process usually started under the jurisdiction of one court, and finished under the jurisdiction of another because of the movement of the applicant. The best bet is to find the court that issued the certificate, since it will have all of the earlier papers as part of its record.
The documents created during the naturalization process contain a wealth of genealogically significant information. You can discover name changes, wife’s family name, date and place of birth, occupation, immigration date and port, and names and ages of children to name just of few of the significant pieces of information. Of course, some of the documents are more information rich than others: first and second papers contain more relevant information than does the oath, for instance.
The documents also change in character over time. Early documents are mostly hand-written, contain less information than later versions, and vary from court to court. After 1906 there is more standardization through the use of pre-printed forms, and more information is called for from the applicant.
Increasingly, naturalization records are being found on line, but that is surely the exception rather than the rule at this point (you can find some at Ancestry.com and Footnote.com). Another place to go for help in your search is the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). Their website is http://www.uscis.gov. You will not find online images at that site, but for a fee the USCIS will find the documents for you.
The Pinellas Genealogy Society offers a class on finding and using naturalization records. Check the class calendar page at its website for more information at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~flpgs/index.htm.