In an earlier lesson, we discussed the post-1906 naturalization
records, designed and maintained by the immigration and naturalization
service of the U.S. federal government. However, naturalization of aliens
had long been a part of American society, even before the Revolutionary
War and the creation of the United States. Since naturalization records
have a direct bearing on finding immigrants between 1820 and 1854, we
will discuss them here.
Although the United States government did not pass
its first naturalization laws until 1790, there were rules and regulations
governing how alien males became citizens even during the colonial time
period (females, and youths, were never considered citizens during this
period). However, two aspects of colonial naturalization must be remembered:
First, naturalization was handled by the individual colonies. There
was no "federal" government. Second, as British colonies, any British
subjects had citizenship anywhere in the American colonies. Thus colonial
naturalization was reserved for "foreigners."
African Americans-Denied Citizenship
The largest group of "foreigners" to arrive at the
shores of the New World were African Americans imported as slaves from
Africa. They, of course, were denied rights as citizens, and were treated
Other European Colonies-Considered Citizens Already
Some of the earliest European foreigners to settle
in North America were the French, Swedes, and Dutch. However, these
persons typically settled in colonies of their native countries (Quebec,
Delaware, and New Netherlands, later New York). Therefore, they were
also considered citizens of their colonies, without naturalization proceedings.
As Great Britain conquered those colonies, their residents "automatically"
became British citizens. The practice of considering previous residents
of newly acquired territory as citizens already, continued on as the
United States gained territory from other nations (Louisiana Purchase,
Texas, California, etc.).