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Overheard in GenForum: Are There Early Alien Registrations?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

March 21, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Does anyone know if there are any other kind of records I could get besides the shipping manifests? Are there Alien registrations for late 1800s to early 1900s ? I have looked on the Immigration and Naturalization Service's web site but could find no answers. They said Alien Registration started in 1940. Are there any before that? -- Donna

A: The tracing our immigrant ancestor is often one of the more frustrating hunts we face. Depending on when the ancestor immigrated, we may find we are having to deal with passenger lists that have not been indexed. Worse yet is the fact that the earlier passenger lists did not ask for as much information.

Most of our research in the old country requires that we have an idea of where the ancestor was born, and by that I mean the town. Just as in the United States we need to know the county within a particular state, the same is true of the countries across the pond. We need to know more than just the country and those earlier passenger lists do not offer such information.

Passenger list information may help you determine citizenship.

Alien Registration Act

You asked about the registration of aliens. While there have been attempts to register aliens, or non-naturalized immigrants, since 1845 a law requiring such registry wasn't passed until 1906. Nothing apparently came of it, though, and on June 28, 1940, as a war measure, the Alien Registration Act was passed and enforced.

Under the Alien Registration Act, aliens fourteen years of age and older, were required to be fingerprinted and to register annually with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They were given a registration card which all aliens over eighteen were required to carry with them at all times. A law repealing the annual registration of aliens was passed in December 1981.

What You Already Know

Your subsequent messages indicated that you have located the family in the 1900 census and have also found the Ellis Island passenger list. Both of these documents will help you figure out if your ancestor was an immigrant or a citizen of the United States.

First a look at the passenger list of 1892. Among other things, there are columns asking for

  • The country of which they are a citizen
  • Native country
  • Last residence

The information on your ancestor in these columns may help you in first determining if, in 1892, he or she was an alien and where they may have been born. While the last residence isn't always the place of birth, it is often a good place to start.

As for the information found on the 1900 census, the enumerators were directed make the following notations:

  • If the person was born abroad, record the year of his or her arrival in the United States in column 16 "Year of immigration to the United States."
  • If the person was born abroad, record the number of year since his or her arrival in the United States in column 17 "Number of years in the United States."
  • If the person was born abroad, record the status of the immigrant's citizenship in column 18 "Naturalization."

Column 18, Naturalization, applied only to those males over the age of 21 and should have one of three abbreviations; "Al" for those who have not done anything toward naturalization, "Pa" for those who have filed the first papers, and "Na" for those who have completed the naturalization process by taking out their second papers.

Your message didn't indicate if the individual in question without anything in this column was a female. If it was a female, that explains why there is no indication of naturalization.

Emigration Records and WW I Draft

While you may not be able to find any information in United States records, you might find that the information you are seeking can be found on emigration records. Some countries had thorough records about those who were leaving the country. Some of these records have been microfilmed and may be available on microfilm through the Family History Library, which means you can order them to your local Family History Center.

Don't be surprised, however, if the emigration records are in the native tongue of the country. You may find that you need a translation dictionary to find the information you're looking for..

If the individual was a male, you may want to look into the draft registration for World War I. Draft registration cards asked for place of birth and citizenship information about each registrant. This may be the only record you find with the place of birth of an immigrant. Again, if you are researching a female, this is not going to be of help.

In Conclusion

Just as passenger list records were a little slow in coming in the United States (they didn't formally begin until nearly two hundred years after the first immigrants arrived), alien registration was also late in coming. For those researching an immigrant in the late 1800s or early 1900s, you may need to look at alternative records. Also, look for the family or individual in the 1910 and 1920 census to see what they tell you about naturalization.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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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