Naturalization records are important sources to explore for information on our immigrant ancestors – especially those who arrived in the United States in the 1800s and early 1900s. If we want to discover the home country or village, a naturalization record could help to make connections between our ancestor and the family left behind. Part 1 of this series discussed why we want to seek out naturalization records, detailed the process of naturalization, and gave ideas for how to locate the records. In this article we’ll look at the naturalization laws in more detail.
Numerous Congressional Acts have dictated naturalization requirements and procedures from 1790 to the present day. These can viewed at Statutes at Large in the Library of Congress. (1) An excellent resource for viewing a short summary of immigration and naturalization laws by year is The Source. (2)
As conditions in the United States and world changed, Congress repealed previous acts for naturalization and passed new acts to fit the circumstances of the time. Understanding the requirements behind an ancestor’s naturalization could provide additional clues for his or her life. When you discover a record for your ancestor, study the legislative act that dictated the requirements for citizenship at that time. You can search the statutes using the specific title and date of the act. The following summary highlights some of the significant portions of major acts.
1790 “An Act to Establish an Uniform Rule of Naturalization”
The newly formed United States government passed the first naturalization act on 26 March 1790. Any “free white person” with residence in the United States for two years could begin the process of citizenship in any of the states he had resided for at least one year. He was to be a “person of good character.” Any child under the age of 21 would also be considered a citizen upon a parent’s naturalization.
1795 “An Act to Establish an Uniform rule of Naturalization; and to repeal the act heretofore passed on that subject”
Congress repealed the act of 1790 and passed a new act on 29 January 1795 that extended the length of residency for a person seeking citizenship to five years with one year in the state or territory of the court. Again persons of “good moral character” who were free and white could be admitted as a citizen. An individual was to “declare on oath” his intention to become a citizen three years before final citizenship was granted.
1798 “An Act supplementary to and to amend the act, entitled “An act to establish an uniform rule of naturalization; and to repeal the act heretofore passed on that subject”
An act passed on 18 June 1798 repealed the previous act of 1795 and changed the residency requirement from five years to fourteen years in the United States and five years in the state or territory of the court. A person seeking citizenship was to file a declaration of intention at least five years before citizenship.
1802 “An Act to establish an uniform rule of Naturalization, and to repeal the acts heretofore passed on that subject”
On 14 April 1802, Congress reversed the residency requirement to five years in the United States and one year in the state or territory of the naturalization court. Children who were under the age twenty-one years when their parents naturalized were to be considered citizens of the United States.
1824 “An Act in further addition to “An act to establish an uniform rule of Naturalization, and to repeal the acts heretofore passed on that subject.”
With the end of the War of 1812, an influx of immigrants from the British Isles and Europe resulted in an addition to the previous act on 26 May 1824. Any “free white person” and a minor under the age of twenty-one who had resided in the United States for up to three years could be admitted as a citizen upon reaching the age of twenty-one once they had resided in the United States for five years without having to make the initial declaration. The individual could make the declaration at the time of his or her admission.
1855 “An Act to secure the Right of Citizenship to Children of Citizens of the United States born out of the Limits thereof.”
10 February 1855 saw the right to citizenship for any woman who married a citizen of the United States or whose husband achieved citizenship. A child born abroad was granted citizenship if his father was a citizen of the United States at the time of his birth.
1862 “An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain.”
The Homestead Act of 20 May 1862 included a clause that enticed many immigrants to begin the naturalization process. Any head of a family or anyone twenty-one years and over who was a citizen or who had filed a declaration of intention and who had never born arms against the United States was entitled to one quarter section or less of unclaimed public lands.
Also, an “alien” soldier who was honorably discharged from the United States Army was not required to file a declaration.
1870 “An Act to amend the Naturalization Laws and to punish Crimes against the same, and for other Purposes.”
Following the Civil War and Emancipation, Congress ratified the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on 9 July 1868. This granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” On 14 July 1870 Congress passed another act that clearly stated citizenship to be extended to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” This act also provided for the prosecution of anyone forging a certificate of naturalization or providing false evidence in court.
1906 “An Act To establish a Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, and to provide for a uniform rule for the naturalization of aliens throughout the United States.”
On 29 June 1906, Congress made a major overhaul of the naturalization process with the establishment of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization which was to have “charge of all matters concerning the naturalization of aliens.” Standardized forms were created and a person was to be a resident of the judicial district of whatever court was being used. Very specific requirements were detailed including being able to speak English. The procedure for the courts was also spelled out and the specific wording for each form designated. The courts were to send a duplicate copy of the naturalization record to the new Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization. That government department later became the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and then the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
1907 Expatriation Act
The act of 2 March 1907 saw women losing their citizenship upon marriage to an “alien” and acquiring their husband’s nationality. A U. S. born woman could regain her citizenship upon her husband’s naturalization. If he was ineligible to naturalize because of race or did not choose to naturalize, she remained a non-citizen.
1922 “An Act Relative to the Naturalization and Citizenship of Married Women”
A major change to the naturalization law of the United States came on 22 September 1922 when a woman did not automatically become a citizen upon her husband’s naturalization. Instead, if she was eligible, she could comply with the requirements and obtain citizenship in her own right. Exceptions to the requirements were provided: she didn’t need to file a declaration of intention and she only needed to have resided in the United States for at least one year. If a woman married a man who was not eligible for citizenship because of race (Asian), her citizenship was still terminated.
1936 “An Act to Repatriate Native-born Women”
An act “to repatriate native-born women” was passed on 5 March 1936 to benefit those women who lost U.S. citizenship between 1907 and 1922 because of their marriage, but only if they were widowed or divorced. A woman would have to take an oath of allegiance at any court under the jurisdiction of the United States to regain her citizenship.
1940 “An Act To repatriate native-born women residents of the United States who have heretofore lost their citizenship by marriage to an alien.”
What about the women who had lost citizenship between 1907 and 1922? The act of 2 June 1940 let all women who had lost their citizenship between 1907 and 1922 take the oath of allegiance and regain their citizenship status regardless of their marital status.
1952 “An Act to Revise the Laws Relating to Immigration, Naturalization,and Nationality”
Congress approved a major consolidation of the naturalization and immigration laws on 27 June 1952, bringing into one statute multiple laws. A major change to naturalization requirements was the lowering of the age requirement to eighteen years old.
Several instances in the history of the United States granted citizenship to entire groups of people by an act of Congress as new territories were acquired. In 1868, all African Americans became citizens collectively with the 14th Amendment and in 1924, all Native Americans were naturalized. In these cases there will be no naturalization records. Approximate dates for these collective naturalizations:
1803 Louisiana Purchase
1819 Florida – included Mississippi & Alabama Territories
1868 / 1870 African Americans
1917 Puerto Rico
1927 Virgin Islands
1924 Native Americans
The naturalization acts affected women and the various provisions that changed through the years make it confusing when researching your female ancestors. An excellent article by Marian L. Smith on the National Archives website details these changes. (3)
Various acts of Congress gave those who served in the military opportunities to more easily naturalize. Following the act of 1862, any soldier of the U.S. Army who was honorably discharged did not have to file a declaration of intention and only had to be a resident for one year, instead of five.
In 1894, an act allowed the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps veterans the same privilege. The act of 9 May 1918 provided an expedited process for service members in World War I to be naturalized. Any “alien serving in the military or naval service” could skip the declaration of intention and file a petition for naturalization. The residence requirement of five years was waived and the service member could appear at any court with proof of enlistment and two witnesses. The article “Immigrant Ancestors in World War I Military Naturalizations” details these records and how to locate them. (4)
Using the Naturalization Laws
How can you best use the various laws that changed the way our ancestors became naturalized? Use the techniques described in Part 1 of this series to narrow the time frame for naturalization. Then study the acts that corresponded to that period. Gain a good understanding of the law at the time and how that might affect the records that were created.
In the third part of this series, we’ll discuss additional places to search for your ancestor’s records and view an example of 20th century naturalization, so stay tuned.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
(1) “Statues at Large,” Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/index.php : accessed 7 July 2020).
(2) Kory L. Meyerink and Loretto Dennis Szucs, “Immigration: Finding Immigrant Origins,” The Source, Loretto Dennis Szucs, ed., (Salt Lake City, Utah : Ancestry Inc., 1997), 449-452.
(3) Marian L. Smith, “Women and Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940,” Prologue Magazine, Summer 1998, Vol. 30, No. 2; digital article, National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1998/summer/women-and-naturalization-1.html : accessed 9 July 2020).
(4) Debra M. Dudek, “Immigrant Ancestors in World War I Military Naturalizations,”NGS Magazine, April-June 2020, Vol. 46, No. 2, (Falls Church, Virginia : National Genealogical Society, 2020), 24-40.