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Page last updated on 24 Mar 2011

The following article is an adaption of four articles describing naturalization records. The original was published in the San Mateo County Genealogical Society Newsletter, Mar-Jul 1999.

The Naturalization Process

by Cath Madden Trindle, CG

Naturalization is a voluntary act by which a person of foreign birth becomes a United States citizen. Not all emigres chose to become citizens. Checking the census records for 1890 through 1930 you find thatfully 25% had not filed for citizenship.

An émigré could file for naturalization in any court of record. Most went to the court most convenientto them, usually the county court. However, it was not uncommon to go to a US District or Circuit court.

Generally a person can file a Declaration of Intention become a citizen after living in the United States for two years. After an additional three years the alien can file a petition to become a citizen After the petition is approved the alien is issued a certificate of Naturalization.

There were three exceptions to the general practice:
  • Naturalization of Husband or Father
  • From 1790 until 1922 wives were exempt from filing separate papers from their husbands. Upon naturalization of their husbands they also became citizens.
  • A foreign born woman who married a U.S. citizen automatically became a citizen.
  • An American woman who married an alien lost her U.S. citizenship, even if she never left the United States.
  • From 1790 to 1940, children under the age of 21 automatically became naturalized citizens upon the naturalization of a parent.

Unfortunately, however, names and biographical information about wives and children were seldom included in declarations or petitions filed before September 1906.

You might find information on these wives and children through voting records. Many jurisdictions required voters to prove their eligibility to vote. Many kept some sort of card file or ledger of those who had submitted proof of citizenship. After 1906 names of wives and children are listed on the Naturalization Certificate. A copy of the certificate should give you the wife’s name and the names and ages of all the children in the household at the time of naturalization.

  • From 1824 to 1906, minor aliens who had lived in the United States 5 years before their 23rd birthday could file both their declarations and petitions at the same time.
  • After 1862, those who were honorably discharged from U.S. military service were excused from the step of filing Declarations of Intention.
  • You might find military naturalizations interspersed with other county naturalizations
  • During World War I, military camps were established throughout the US. If you can’t find your WWI ancestors naturalization look for his discharge and check for his naturalization in the same area.

Declaration of Intention

Many emigres would file their intention to become a citizen soon as possible, which was after living legally in the United States for two years. Declarations were often filed near the first entry point of the ancestor. Often an immigrant would work in an area long enough to accumulate enough money to buy land in some other place. Final papers might be found where he eventually settled or anywhere that he lived for a long enough time in between.

Until 1906, the content of forms for declaration of intention varied dramatically from one county to another and from one court to another. A large percentage of the first papers created before 1906 contain very little biographical information. Those of California counties are no exception.

Declarations of intention produced after 15 September 1906 generally contain the following information: (Name, Address, Occupation, Birthplace, Nationality , Country from which emigrated, Birth date or age, Personal description, Date of intention, Marital status, Last foreign residence, Port of entry, Name of ship, Date of entry, Date of document).

Keep in mind that many people did not complete the naturalization process. The Declaration although informationally skimpy might be the only document you find. At the very least it will pinpoint your ancestors whereabouts at a certain point of time, at the best it will give birth date, last foreign residence
and other helpful statistics.

Petitions to Become a Citizen

These were formal applications submitted to the court by individuals who had met the residency requirements and who had declared their intention to become citizens. As with the Declaration of Intention, information content varied dramatically from one court to another. Most petitions created before 1906 offer little in terms of personal information. Again San Mateo County was no exception to the rule.

After 1906, the picture changes. The following is usually included on the Certificate: Name , Address, Occupation, Date of emigration, Birthplace, Country from which emigrated, Birth date or age, Length of time in the United States, Date of intention, Name and age of spouse , Names and ages of children, Last foreign residence, Port and mode of entry, Name of ship, Date of entry, Names of witnesses, Date of document, Address of spouse, Photograph (after 1929)

In San Mateo County the Declaration of Intention to become a Citizen and a Certificate of Arrival are usually attached to the petition. All of the petitions that are available in the repository have been bound into books.

In some cases depositions were required in order to finish the Naturalization process. Perhaps a person moved and no citizen in the present location could swear that the petitioner had lived in the United States for at least five years. In such cases witnesses would go before the courts in their place of residence and file a deposition stating that the petitioner had in fact been a resident from a certain date. Depositions might be attached to the naturalization documents or might be filed separately.

Certificates of Naturalization

The final step in the naturalization process. Certificates were issued to naturalized citizens upon completion of all citizenship requirements. As in the cases of declarations of intention and the petitions, the amount of information provided on the certificate may vary greatly from one year to another. In some cases, the certificate will provide: Name, Address, Birthplace or nationality, Country from which emigrated, Birth date or age, Personal,
description, Marital status, Name of spouse, Names, ages, and addresses of children, Date of document,but they usually contain only the name of the individual, the name of the court, and the date of issue.

Generally the court did not retain copies of certificates issued to new citizens, but certificates were usually issued in bound volumes. Typical volumes were designed in a checkbook fashion, with the certificate to the right side of the page, and a stub to the left to be kept as a permanent record of the person to whom the certificate was issued. These naturalization stub books, as they were sometimes called, also vary in content from one year to another, but sometimes contain valuable genealogical information. Some court officials regarded stub books as a duplication of records that occupied needed space and ordered them destroyed. There are some stubs in the San Mateo Repository. We did not use these stubs when adding certificate dates and numbers to the index as these items were carefully recorded on the petitions and you could not receive a certificate from a court other than that in which you filed your petition.


To locate your ancestors naturalization records........

Pre 1906

  • Contact the local court in the county or state where you suspect the papers were filed.
  • Check Records available at the Family History Library .
  • If the naturalization was filed in Federal Court the papers should be located in the National Archives. California had both a Northern and a Southern District Court. Card Indexes to both courts are currently being indexed by Ancestry and will be available on their website to search for free. The Southern District Court records are also available on Footnote.

Post 1906

Under the act of 29 June 1906 (32 Stat. 596 sec. 3) the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was established to provide for a uniform rule for the naturalization of aliens throughout the United States. The law, effective 27 September 1906, was designed to provide “dignity, uniformity, and regularity” to the naturalization procedure. Procedural safeguards were established which standardized information and required that all blank forms and records be obtained from and controlled by the Bureau of Immigration. Thus all applications now included age, occupation, personal description, date and place of birth, current citizenship, present address and past foreign address, ports of embarkation and entry, name of vessel or alternate means of conveyance, date of arrival in the United States, spouse and children’s full names, dates and places of birth and place of residence as of the date of the document. Knowledge of English became a basic requirement for those wishing to receive and Certificate of Naturalization.

The new bureau controlled which courts were used for the naturalization process. Some county and state courts, like San Mateo, have retained records of naturalization documents filed in their jurisdictions.

Each US district court should have an index of the naturalizations that took place within it’s jurisdication from 1906 on. Check with the courts in the area where your ancestor lived. All courts were required to send copies of the documents to the Bureau of Naturalization, which was ultimately responsible for the process. At times the review process caused the county naturalization to be canceled. Copies of documents created at the court level as well as those added by the Bureau of Immigration can be obtained from: the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Post 1906 Naturalization records can be obtained from US Citizenship Immigration Services

The original northern California District court records are available in at the National Archives Pacific Region - San Bruno.  They are indexed by a card file on microfilm. 

Original southern California District Court records are available at the National Archives Pacific Region - Riverside


NATURALIZATION RECORDS INDEXES Microfilm publication M1744. This index consists of 165 rolls of microfilm and is supposed to have a card for each individual naturalized at the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of California (San Francisco). It serves as an index to naturalizations done at: Northern District though 1916; Southern Division of the Northern District, 1917-1966; Northern District, 1966-1973; Northern Division of the Northern District, 1973-1989; Special Circuit Court, 1855-1863; Tenth Circuit Court, 1863-1866; Ninth Circuit Court for the District of California, 1866-1886; Circuit Court of the Northern District of California 1886-1911. It does not index the records of the Eastern District, Northern Division, Sacramento or the Eastern District, Southern Division, Fresno. [Description of Northern California District Card File]


 
 
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