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Sweet Land of Liberty: Naturalization in America

“Let music swell the breeze and ring from all the trees. Sweet freedom’s song.”[1] The classic lyrics to a beloved American anthem call the wayward and downtrodden to her shores.

Our immigrant ancestors came to this land to make a new life for themselves and their families. Naturalization was the process by which they could become legal citizens and claim allegiance to America; the home of the free.

A Brief History of Immigration Prior to 1906

The process of immigration in American began in 1790.[2]

Between 1790 and 1906, the naturalization process changed from time to time. Depending on when your ancestor came to America, you will find the amount of information the record contains and the process by which it was completed will vary.

Women and children were not usually naturalized. Between 1790 and 1922, wives of naturalized men automatically became citizens.[3] From 1790 to 1940, minor children were also automatically naturalized when their fathers were.[4] Keep in mind that a “minor” in this case was a child under the age of 21 and not yet married. This type of naturalization is referred to as “derivative citizenship.”

It was not required that immigrants became naturalized so why did they? One reason may have been to participate in voting. Many had never had the opportunity to live in a country that had that freedom. Another reason might have been to own land or engage in homesteading. Whatever the reason, naturalization records can hold genealogical information found nowhere else. If you have an immigrant ancestor, you will want to find these records if they exist.

The Immigration Process

Generally speaking, naturalization was a two-step process. The process could be started in one location and end in another, even across state lines. Naturalization was often a lengthy process and not all immigrants who started were able to complete it.

Between 1790 and 1906, most naturalization proceedings were held in a county, superior or common pleas court, or in a U.S. circuit or district court.[5] On occasion, I have found naturalization records in civil minutes, criminal, and probate records, so be sure to search the records in every court.

The first step in the naturalization process was to declare intent. The “declaration of intent” or “first papers” were generally filed after living in the United States for two years. After some additional years (usually three), the immigrant could file a “petition for naturalization,” also sometimes referred to “second” or “final papers.”[6] After citizenship was granted, the immigrant would then be issued a certificate and deemed a legal naturalized citizen.

How Do I Know If My Ancestor Was Naturalized?

If you are fortunate enough to have an immigrant ancestor who was alive and living in the U.S. by 1900, you can easily determine their naturalization status. The 1900 U.S. Federal Census was the first census to ask citizenship questions.[7] Column 16 asked the year of immigration to the U.S., column 17 asked how many years they had been in the U.S., and column 18 asked whether the immigrant was naturalized.


One of three responses could be given for column 18. “Na” means they are naturalized and typically that they have finished the naturalization process. “Pa” means they have declared their intent and first papers have been filed. “Al” means they are an “alien” and have not begun the naturalization process.

The 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses also asked citizenship questions, though there are some slight variations in the questions they asked.[8]

Example #1: Declaration and Petition for Joe Nimeth


According to the 1930 U.S. Federal Census, Joe Nimeth was naturalized, had immigrated to the states in 1903, and had been born in about 1888 in Hungary.[9]


A search on discovered his WWI draft card in which he stated his date of birth as 21 September 1886 and the birth location as Kormend, Hungary.[10] That was a good find!

I also found on Ancestry the “US, Naturalization Records – Original Documents, 1795-1972” in which both his declaration and petition were available in a digital image.

The declaration contained some surprising information. Joe’s occupation at the time of the declaration was that of a miner. He was born 21 September 1886 in Kormend, Hungary. He had a medium complexion, was 5 feet 3 inches in height, weighed a 164 pounds, and had brown hair and eyes. This document stated that Joe had sailed from Antwerp, [Belgium] on the Red Star Lines and had last resided in Kormend, Hungary. He arrived in the port at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in October 1903. [11]


But the best piece of information was that his wife’s name was Mary Super. Why is this so great? Because I knew Joe had been married before he married Lillie Eldridge, but I didn’t know to whom. This document gave me the first name and maiden name of his first wife and that she too was born in Kormend, Hungary.

The petition, which was filed seven years later, had some of the same information and a few new pieces of information. Joe was still a coal miner, but now he lived in St. Charles, Lee County, Virginia. He was born on 21 September 1886 in Kormend, Hungary. He sailed from Antwerp about the 10th of October 1903. Joe landed in Philadelphia on or about the 21st of October 1903. At this time, he was married to Lily [sic] Nimeth who was born on 15 February 1901 at Rose Hill, [Lee County,] Virginia. They have one child, Irene, born on 8 July 1926 in St. Charles, [Lee County,] Virginia. [12] It was nice to get these two birth dates for his second wife and child.

Another interesting piece of information found on that record is that he has lived in Virginia since 10 September 1914. Interesting. I wonder where he was between 1903 and 1914. (He was in Ohio for some of that time, but that is another story!)


Overall, I was amazed at how much information can be gleaned from a naturalization record. There is genealogical data that may not be found on any other record. Finding these naturalization records will likely point you in the right direction when it is time to jump the pond.

Keep digging for those naturalization records, you’ll be glad you did!


[1] Smith, Samuel Francis, “My Country Tis of Thee,” 1831.

[2] “Naturalization Records,” National Archives, ( accessed 5 Apr 2015), paragraph 3.

[3] “Naturalization Records,” National Archives, ( accessed 5 Apr 2015), paragraph 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “United States Naturalization and Citizenship,” FamilySearch, FamilySearch Wiki, ( accessed 6 Apr 2015).

[6] Ibid.

[7] “1900,” U.S. Census Bureau, ( accessed 4 Apr 2015).

[8] “What questions were asked during each census?,” U.S. Census Bureau, ( accessed 8 Apr 2015).

[9] 1930 U.S. Federal Census, Rocky Station, Lee, Virginia, population schedule, ED 53-7, sheet 19A (penned), page 94 (stamped), dwelling 342, family 348, Joe Nimeth; image, ( accessed 6 Apr 2015); citing NARA microfilm publication T626, roll 2449.

[10] “U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” images, ( : accessed 6 Apr 2015), card for Joe Nimeth, registration no. 1339, Wise County, Virginia; citing NARA microfilm publication M1509.

[11] “U.S., Naturalization Records – Original Documents, 1795-1972 (World Archives Project),” images, ( : accessed 6 Apr 2015), Declaration of Intention and Petition for Naturalization for Joe Nimeth; citing NARA microfilm publication M1645, roll 2.

[12] Ibid.

Amie Bowser Tennant Amie Bowser Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant has served as a volunteer at her local Family History Center for more than 10 years. She was awarded the National Genealogical Society Home Study Course Scholarship in American Genealogy in 2011. She also enjoyed the position as newsletter editor for Miami Meanderings, a local county genealogical publication, for two years. Now, she is a research genealogist, speaker, and writer.

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