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Rhonda's Tips: Genealogy Questions Answered
by Rhonda R. McClure

December 12, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Early Naturalization

Q: I have found my ancestor's final naturalization, but there is virtually no information on it. It only has his name and that he pledges allegiance to the U.S. and gives up allegiance to Willhelm. It has his signature on it. I found this in his next to last known residence prior to his death in Rock Island, Illinois. Where might I start to look for the Declaration of Intent? The year of his finalization was 1870. -- Shawn & Sheila

A: There are actually two more papers that complete the naturalization records. There is the Declaration of Intent, which may not tell you much more than what you already know. Then there is the second paper or the application for naturalization. It is the second paper that is most often the most informative for genealogists. The application often asked for details on date and place of birth, and date and ship of arrival.

If you are hoping to find the names of your ancestor's parents through the naturalization records, you may find that you are disappointed. Generally the naturalization records hold clues to the individual being naturalized. And like many of the records genealogists use, the more recent records tend to be the more complete.

As for finding them, you would need to understand the naturalization laws of the time. In the mid 1800s, it is likely that your ancestor had to wait approximately five years to naturalize. You did not indicate when he arrived in the United States, but what you will want to do is to create a chronology from his day of arrival until the date of naturalization. Determine all the places he was living in those years and begin to search the county courthouses of those places for his declaration of intent and his application to be naturalized.

In addition to the county courthouses, you will also want to check the regional branch of the National Archives. While the responsibility of maintaining the naturalization records didn't move to Washington, D.C. until 1906, with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, I have found that there are some earlier naturalization records housed in the regional branches. Depending on where your ancestor lived over the years, it is possible that you will need to look in more than the NARA branch in Chicago for these records. The Chicago branch would have records for Illinois, which is why I mention it.

It also possible that the records you are in need of have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. Once you have established all the places where your ancestor lived, look in the Family History Library Catalog for those counties and see what naturalization records are available. Even if it is just an index, it may prove useful in your contacting the county courthouse. It is always easier to supply the courthouse with the volume and page number of the record you are requesting than to just send a blanket search with an estimated date.

The Family History Library Catalog is arranged by subject headings once you have gone to the county in question. You should find the records you are interested in under the heading "Naturalization and citizenship." While the Family History Library Catalog offers a Subject search, I have found that I often do not get the records when I use it, so that is why I suggest the place search and then find the sub-heading mentioned above.

Lost in New York

Q: I have been trying to find John H. Robertson in New York in the 1840s. If you could help me, please let me know. Thank you. -- Judie

A: To find John H. Robertson, you will need to trace his lineage backwards. For instance, do you know when he died? Have you tried to get a copy of his death certificate? Also, have you searched for an obituary on John?

You will want to be sure to locate John throughout the census years of his life. If you have found him in just a single census, and are using it to find him in 1840 New York, then you may discover as you look at the other census years that you have additional states in which he might have been from or that the dates of his birth differ enough that he did not reach majority when you suspected.

If you were hoping to find a birth certificate for John, you may have already discovered that for the state of New York, this is too early for civil records such as birth certificates. Also, if all you know is the state, you will find that you are up against a Herculean task. The first step is to narrow down the search to a county, as most of the records for New York are found on the county level.

Because John H Robertson is a somewhat common name, it will be more difficult to isolate the right Robertson. If your John was born in the 1840s in New York, your first step will be to search the 1850 New York federal census for Robertson families, looking for and abstracting those families that have a son John of the approximate age in question. I say approximate because where the census is concerned, it is always possible that the age is off one way or the other by one to two years.

Once you have your working list of families, you will need to begin researching these families as thoroughly as possible. See if you can determine who each John Robertson married. This will help you to eliminate those that are not your John. Other ways to eliminate them is to see where the John Robertson's migrate to in the later census years. Some may die before reaching the age of maturity also.

What you have before you is a project, not just a quick search. Projects such as this usually require that you put together file folders for each family so that you have a way to track the information you are finding. You will also want to keep a research log, and will have to find a way to identify and keep separate each John Robertson that you are researching and eliminating.

I Want to Record Places Correctly

Q: I'm a rookie at this and have a couple of questions which you will see pertain to a similar subject. My first question is when I'm recording information about where someone is born/died what is the appropriate way (when I know all of it) of including the city, county, and state? Should it be like I just mentioned or another way such as county, city, and state? Second is there a preferred way of listing the state? Should it be spelled out fully or is abbreviations accepted? Third, is there a certain format for recording marriage info. For example when I know city, county, state, and the name of the church. How should all that be listed? -- Jimmy

A: First, let me commend you on your interesting in recording place names in whatever the accepted format is. By keeping dates and places consistent, regardless of who is recording the information, then we guarantee that those who follow later using our research will not have to wonder what the date is or where the event took place.

In answer to your first question, a place name should be recorded from smallest division to largest. In your example, this would be city, county, state. In some countries, this requires more. For example, you may find that you have a parish, a city, a shire and the country. Others may have a city, county, province, and country. Generally speaking, the state is the largest division when talking about the United States, but in other countries, you will also want to include the country itself.

When it comes to states or any places for that matter, it is a good idea to always spell them out. Abbreviations open up the possibility of questions. For instance, I know many people who have trouble with the abbreviation for Massachusetts and Mississippi. Massachusetts postal abbreviation is MA, but some think it is MS. The same for Mississippi and Missouri. They both begin with the same first four letters, so is MS Mississippi or Missouri? To those who live in the United States, it seems like a no brainer, but just as we are often stumped when we are researching in a foreign country and stumble over abbreviations used there, the same happens with those who are researching their American ancestors, but who live elsewhere.

In the case of marriages, if the marriage did take place in a church, and not all of them did, then you have the option of including the name of the church. Different genealogy programs do this different ways. You have a similar situation with cemeteries. Most genealogists make a note of the church or cemetery name, leaving the place field of their program for the town in which the event took place. Some genealogy software packages have a detail field or comment field in which to record such information as the name of the church in which the couple was married or in listing the name of the cemetery.

Whenever you find yourself wondering about such things, it is better to err on the side of too much. No one has ever complained when a genealogist included the church in which the marriage took place, provided of course that the genealogist also included the town,county and state. However, I have heard many sighs of frustration when the person using someone else's research can't decipher the abbreviations or manner in which the information was recorded.

Becoming a Professional

Q: How does one become a professional genealogist? I got into collecting data about 10 years ago and enjoy it. I'd like to learn more and maybe become a professional genealogist. -- Terry

A: While there are no legal rules to becoming a professional, there are a few things you will want to do, both for your piece of mind as well as that of those who hire you. If you haven't done so, you will want to take a few classes in genealogy. Even those of us who researched for a number of years before becoming professionals, understood that our knowledge was limited to those records and experiences our own family history afforded. By taking classes, such as those offered through the National Genealogical Society you will be introduced to trips to repositories that you might not have had experience with in the past. There are a number of university courses that are also available, some of them online. Brigham Young University and the Univeristy of Toronto are two such institutions that offer genealogical classes, again some of them online.

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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