Saturday, December 3, 2016

Going to the Courthouse - Naturalization Records

Amazingly to those of us living in the early 21st century when immigration and citizenship is highly contentious and tighly controlled by the federal government, until the 1920s, a state of laissez-faire existed.  Congress had given the authority to almost any municipal, state, or federal court to make immigrants citizens of the United States once they had lived in the US for five years.  Until 1906, courts even used whatever forms they wished.  Since state district courts were the most accessible to residents, these were the most common destination for the immigrant who wished to become an American citizen.  Thus, if you are going to a county where an immigrant ancestor lived, you should definitely check for naturalization documents.  But note that if you don't find it there, they may have been naturalized in a municipal or federal court or even in some other place.  And a fair number of immigrants never naturalized.

The naturalization process.  The process changed over time, but for most of the time we are concerned about (post-1874), the prospective citizen could file a declaration of intention (or "first papers") once he had been in the United States for two years.  He received a document that he had to submit to the court when he filed his petition for naturalization ("final papers"), which he could file with a court once he had been in the US for five years.  Once approved, the court would give him a certificate of naturalization.  Until 1906, the only documents were held at the court that naturalized the citizen.  After 1906, a copy was forwarded to the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, but the original file stayed at the court.

Until 1940, wives and children under age 21 were automatically naturalized when the husband/father was naturalized.  Only after 1906 are they even listed on the documents.  Single women and widows might undergo a separate naturalization, but this is quite rare.  And minor children who came to the US would only have a naturalization file if their father (or perhaps widowed mother) was not naturalized.  For example, my great -grandfather David Fast #86812 (1858-1932) arrived as a 16-year-old boy with his parents.  His father never naturalized, so he did file for naturalization as an adult when he wanted to homestead land.

Getting Ready.  Doing some research ahead of time will speed up your work at the courthouse.  The 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses asked the year of immigration and citizenship status for each foreign-born person, so it can tell whether or not you should look for naturalization documents for a certain person (assuming that the census information is correct).  The citizenship status is indicated with three abbreviations, Al (alien), Pa (submitted first papers), and Na (naturalized).  The 1920 census added a question about the year of naturalization.  By 1940, the only question asked was the citizenship status of the foreign-born.  Some state censuses also asked about naturalization.

For example, in the 1900 census, my great-grandfather Heinrich F. Reimer #317342 (1856-1923) was reported to have immigrated in 1875 and was still an alien "Al".  Absent any other information from other censuses, it's probably not worth searching for his naturalization papers.  But another great-grandfather Jacob Suderman #319370 (1856-1906) reported that he had immigrated in 1882 (it was actually 1878) and had been naturalized (I haven't been to the courthouse to search for his file yet).  Since he had lived in two counties (Harvey County, Kansas, and Fort Bend County, Texas) between his immigration and the 1900 census, I should check the district courts in those two counties first.

You should also search in for naturalization information.  There is an extensive card file from the INS that has brief information about many naturalizations, so it can give you a place to start.  Here is the index card for David Fast, my great-grandfather:
Naturalization index card for David Fast, 26 October 1909, Western District Court of Missouri, ARC: 572253; Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21; National Archives at Kansas City, Missouri, accessed at on 10 January 2014.
 Although brief, every piece of information is pure gold, including the date of naturalization, the court, date of immigration, port of arrival, residence, birth date, and names of two witnesses.  Most give a certificate number.  You can take this card to the courthouse and go right to the file, using the certificate number or date of naturalization.

At the Courthouse.  The naturalization records are generally stored with the clerk of the district court.  Most clerks know little or nothing about these records because they have not done naturalizations for several decades, although some clerks do know about them.  These records are usually not indexed but are in bound volumes by date - if you don't know the date, you may have to go through them page by page, which is why the census records and the INS card index are so helpful.

In the Texas County, Okla., courthouse, the clerk knew nothing about them until she recalled that her predecessor had mentioned boxes of old records stored on the top floor in the old jail.  I rode the elevator up with the clerk to the abandoned jail where we went to a cell being used to store records.  I climbed on a desk to get a box of papers from the top of a shelf, and there were bound volumes of naturalization records!  Later once I told the ladies at the genealogy room at the city library, they rescued the records.

Examples of Documents.  Here is the petition that I found in that old jail cell for my great-grandfather David Fast.  Actually, he had filed the petition in Fort Bend County, Texas, in 1906, where the court had given him this document as proof.  Then he submitted it to the court in Texas County, Oklahoma, with his petition for naturalization.
Declaration of intention of David Fast, 12 October 1906, District Court of Fort Bend County, Texas, no. 1, Clerk of District Court, Texas County Court House, Guymon, Oklahoma.
My favorite part is the personal description:  auburn beard, height of 5'4", weight of 151 pounds, etc.

Next is the petition that he filed three years later in 1909:
Petition for naturalization of David Fast, 4 March 1909, District Court of Texas County, Oklahoma, no. 67, Clerk of District Court, Court House, Guymon, Oklahoma.

Finally there was the plain-looking certificate that the court issued seven months later:
Certificate of naturalization of David Fast, 26 October 1909, District Court of Texas County, Oklahoma, vol. 4126, no. 66275, Clerk of District Court, Court House, Guymon, Oklahoma.

The new citizen got a more formal certificate to keep as proof, and my family is fortunate to have that in its possession.  My aunt gave me a copy:
Certificate of naturalization of David Fast, 26 October 1909, District Court of Texas County, Oklahoma,no. 66275, original held by Viola (Fast) Funk of Corn, Oklahoma.
Since this was a post-1906 naturalization, there is more information in the file, but even the pre-1906 files have good information.  Plus it's just fun to have the proof of your ancestor's naturalization in your hand.  So make it a priority to look for your immigrant ancestor's naturalization records any time you go to a county where he lived.


  1. Thank you for writing about this information, even if it was originally posted in 2016. I recently noticed the Na, Pa in the census records and now realize that it will narrow down the search for the naturalization/citizenship records I would really like to find for my great+ grandparents. I know they are from Prussia (immigration year might be 1866), but I am unable to narrow it down to any specific location.

    1. Jennifer, glad that the post was helpful. Before 1906, your ancestor could have been naturalized in literally any court, but most often they were registered in the state district court nearest where they lived. But it could be the local town court or a federal court in another state. After 1906, state courts have continued to perform naturalizations, but they have become progressively much rarer; and now most of them are in done in federal district courts. The best starting places to find the location where your ancestor was naturalized are the indices at Ancestry, Family Search, or US Citizenship and Immigration Services (after 1906) Before 1906 all records stayed with the local court that performed the naturalization, but after 1906 USCIS gets a copy or the original. Good luck with your search!