Several branches of my family came to United States in the 1860s from Sweden and Germany and England—before Ellis Island. Were these people automatically made citizens or did they have to apply for naturalization? Where would one go to learn of this procedure?A
Any immigrant coming to the United States in the mid-1800s would have had to be naturalized to become a citizen. The process was twofold: First, the newcomer would have filed a declaration of intent for citizenship (referred to as “first papers”). After fulfilling the five-year residency requirement, he could then file his petition for naturalization. He had to sign these “final papers”—so if you can find that petition, you’ll have the added treat of seeing your ancestor’s John Hancock.
When male immigrants were naturalized, their children also automatically received citizenship. Between 1855 and 1922, their wives did, too.
The federal government standardized the naturalization process (including the paperwork) in 1906. Since your ancestors arrived before that, they could've filed for citizenship in any court—they might even have started the process in one location, then completed it in another. To cover all your bases, you’ll need to hunt for records at the local, county and state levels.
Start with a place search of the Family History Library catalog
for locations where your ancestors might have petitioned, and look under the naturalization heading to identify records available on microfilm. Next, check archives at all three levels. Some archives and other official stewards of naturalization records have posted indexes and documents online: See Joe Beine’s state-by-state directory of links
is also helpful.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services has copies of all post-1906 naturalization records. To request those, download and fill out form G-639
and mail it to US Citizenship and Immigration Serivces FOIA/PA, 111 Massachusetts Ave.,
Washington, DC 20529 (be sure to write “Freedom of Information Act Request” on the envelope).
Naturalization records can be a gateway to finding your ancestor’s passenger arrival list, as they often tell port and date of immigration (though the earlier the records, generally the less detail they contain). In fact, that’s how I confirmed the family story of my great-grandfather Henry Essel’s 1888 arrival through Philadelphia, enabling me to locate the ship manifest recording him and his family.
You can learn more about the naturalization process in They Became Americans
by Loretto Dennis Szucs (Ancestry, $19.95) and The Family Tree Guide To Finding Your Ellis Island Ancestors
by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Family Tree Books, $19.99). For Carmack’s 10-step guide to tracing immigrant ancestors, see our Yearbook 2003
issue. Library and Archives Canada
provides information on Canadian naturalizations.