The following article is by my good friend, by William Dollarhide:
Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 35: The courthouse containing the information critical to your research is always closed for renovation on the day you arrive.
The first naturalization act of 1790 provided that an alien who desired to become a citizen of the United States should apply to “any common law court of record, in any one of the states wherein he shall have resided for the period of one year at least.” Under this and later laws, aliens were naturalized in federal, state, county, or municipal courts. Records of aliens naturalized by way of local or state courts may still be located at the courthouse of that jurisdiction, or may have been removed for safe keeping to a state archives. Records of those aliens naturalized by way of the District Courts of the United States are located today in the District Court covering all or part of a particular state, or the National Archives branch facility covering that state’s federal court records.
The process of naturalization involved several steps, for which multiple documents with genealogical information may exist along the way:
● Declarations of Intention. These are documents by which applicants for U.S. citizenship renounced allegiance to foreign sovereignties and declared their intention to become a U.S. citizen. As the first step in the naturalization process, they were often called “First Papers.” Early declarations of intention usually show for each applicant, a full name, country of birth or allegiance, date of the application, and a signature. Some will show a date and port of arrival in the United States. After 1906, a longer and more detailed form was used, including such information as the applicant’s name, age, occupation, and personal description; date and place of birth; citizenship; present address and last foreign address; vessel and port of embarkation for the United States; U.S. port and date of arrival in the United States; and date of application and signature.
● Naturalization Petitions. These are documents by which those who had declared their intention to become a U.S. citizen made formal application for citizenship, after meeting the residency requirements. Information on these documents includes a full name, residence, occupation, date and place of birth, citizenship, and personal description of applicant (many 20th century documents include a photograph); date of immigration; port of embarkation and arrival; marital status; names, dates, and places of birth for the applicant’s children; date at which U.S. residence commenced; time of residence in state; name changes; and a signature.
● Naturalization Depositions. These are formal statements in support of an applicant’s petition by witnesses designated by the applicant. The records indicate the period of the applicant’s residence in a certain locale and other information, including witnesses’ appraisals of the applicant’s character.
● Certificates of Naturalization and Oaths of Allegiance. These official papers document the granting of U.S. citizenship to petitioners. The early orders of admission to citizenship are often available only in the minute books of the court where the final naturalization certificate was issued. The minute books are organized in chronological order, but have an index to the names. In some case, all records for one person undergoing the naturalization process have been gathered together in a petition record folder, which usually includes the petition for naturalization, affidavits of the petitioner and witnesses, the oath of allegiance, and the order of the court admitting the petitioner to citizenship. Before 1906, the Certificate of Naturalization was given to the new citizen but no copy of the certificate was kept by the court that issued it. Only a minute book record or a copy of the court order, and possibly the Oath of Allegiance was recorded and kept at a local courthouse. A person could request another Certificate of Naturalization to be issued if the original were lost, or another copy was needed for some other purpose. The request had to be made directly to the court that issued the original document. From 1906 forward, copies of all naturalization documents generated at the local courts were sent to the Immigration and Naturalization agencies in Washington, DC. Thus, copies of all First Papers, Petitions, Depositions, Oaths of Allegiance, and Certificates of Naturalization can be found at either the local branches of the district courts, state courts, county courts, and local/municipal courts; as well as the copies of the records that went to the Immigration Bureau, Naturalization Bureau, or Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) now stored at the National Archives. As an example of naturalization records initiated at the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Alabama (Mobile), the early records are now at the National Archives and Records Administration — Southeast Region, located in East Point, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. Records include petition and record documents, 1906-1929, and declarations of intention, 1855-1929. They are all indexed by the name of the petitioner. But, copies of these same records are also part of the records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) now stored at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Naturalization Records Since 1906
Since 2003, the current U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the successor of the original 1906 Bureau of Immigration and Bureau of Naturalization, two agencies that merged in 1933 to become the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The successor USCIS has copies of all naturalization records (certificates, declarations of intentions, and petitions), since September 27, 1906. They are completely indexed. A request for information from a naturalization file must be done on a USCIS form. A copy of that form can be downloaded from the USCIS web site. See http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/.
More Naturalization Information Found at the National Archives
Two other types of federal records now located at the National Archives commonly provide detailed naturalization information:
● Passport Applications. These records are among the General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59. If a naturalized citizen applied for a passport before 1906, records of his naturalization are usually in the passport application file. In some cases, a copy of a Certificate of Naturalization can be found in an applicant’s file.
● Homestead Applications. These records are part of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49. Foreign born homestead applicants had to present evidence of citizenship or that they had declared their intention to become a U.S. citizen to qualify for homestead land. As a result, naturalization declarations or certificates are often found in the case files of homestead land entries. Before the advent of copying machines, the documents found in the case files are always the originals. Before 1906, only one naturalization certificate was issued, and an applicant for a homestead would willingly surrender his only copy as proof of citizenship. The applicant never got the proof of citizenship documents back. A search in the homestead case files can be very rewarding, not only for the genealogical information, but for access to original documents found nowhere else, such as the “First Papers” (Intention to Become a Citizen of the United States), or an actual Certificate of Naturalization originally issued to your ancestor.