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Overheard on the Message Boards: What Can I Learn from Naturalization Records?
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.

August 29, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I have read that you should try to get an ancestor's Declaration of Intent. I have a year for my great-grandfather's naturalization (it is about 13 years later so might be a little off). What I'm trying to find out is if any of his family (wife, children, siblings, parents) would be mentioned in a Declaration of Intent or would it just be him?

I'm also hoping the ship he and his family came on will be mentioned so I can search for other family members. I'm thinking if it was that long after he immigrated, maybe the details wouldn't be as accurate. I'm sure he traveled with siblings and some children who died before the 1900 census. I'm hoping his declaration of intent or naturalization papers will help me out but I'm not clear what is actually on them. He immigrated in 1884 and naturalized in 1897. -- Kristie

A: As you know, there is more than one paper generated during the naturalization process. In fact, there are three papers generated during the naturalization process. The first is the declaration of intent, the second is the petition for naturalization, and the third is the naturalization certificate itself. While each is an interesting document, a piece of our ancestor's history, the one that most often contains the most information is the petition for naturalization.

Of course, naturalization records have changed over the years and those of the 1900s often have more information than those of the 1800s. Usually, though, regardless of when the records were created you'll find that the second papers, or the petition for naturalization, has the most information.

Naturalization records hold clues to arrival and origin.

Declaration of Intent

The Declaration of Intent is the first step in the naturalization process. Generally this document doesn't give much in the way of information about the immigrant as to their date and place of birth or when and on what ship they arrived in the United States. Generally the Declaration of Intent is a single sheet that is more like an oath.

On the Declaration of Intent, you will find the individual's name and their intentions of becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States of America. The Declaration of Intent goes on to deny allegiance to the ruler of the old country from which the immigrant came.

Once in awhile you will find an application for the Declaration of Intent. In such cases you may get some more information about the immigrant. I have been fortunate enough to find the ship, date of arrival, and port of arrival on such applications before. This was generally in the latter 1800s or early 1900s.

Petition for Naturalization

Generally it is the petition for naturalization, also commonly referred to as the second papers, that hold the most information on the individual for a genealogist. The information available, however, is dependent on when the naturalization takes place.

Those who went through the naturalization process in the mid 1800s had less information on their forms than those that were getting naturalized in the latter 1800s or the 1900s. This is important to remember when beginning the search for naturalization records. While it is always good to get any records that may have been created about an ancestor, there are times when you must weigh the information that might be found against the effort and cost required in getting the record in question.

The petition for naturalization does concentrate on the individual in question. There are times, though, when you will find additional information. The petition of naturalization often includes the following information on the individual seeking naturalization.

  • Name of the petitioner
  • Place of residence
  • Occupation
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Port which the immigrant left
  • Date the immigrant left
  • Port of arrival
  • Date of arrival
  • Date of filing of the declaration of intent
  • Place where the declaration of intent was filed
  • Name of spouse
  • Date of birth of the spouse
  • Place of birth of the spouse
  • Names of the children
  • Dates of birth of the children
  • Places of birth of the children
  • The country the applicant is renouncing allegiance to

There is no guarantee that you will get all of this information on each petition that you look for. A lot depends on the individual being naturalized, the information he or she supplied, and when the petition was filed. Also remember that at different times minor children and spouses were naturalized at the time of the father or husband, so it is possible that the only record that exists is the one for the husband or father, even if your interest is in the wife.

Finding the Records

Because your ancestor was naturalized before 1906, the records could be in a number of different places. Usually, for those pre-1906 naturalizations, you will need to begin your search in the counties where your ancestor was living. It is possible that the Declaration of Intent could be in one county while the Petition for Naturalization is filed in another. This is one of the reasons that it is important to know everywhere that an individual lived before they were naturalized

Many naturalization records at the county level have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. At the very least there may be an index that has been microfilmed allowing you to get necessary information before writing to the county courthouse to request copies of the records.

You will want to search the Family History Library Catalog at the state and county levels, and in some instances the city level. You will also want to look at the United States level. Even though the federal government hadn't centralized the records, there are times when you will find the naturalization records for a region because they are now housed at one of the National Archives regions.

You may end up having to write to the county courthouse in order to get copies of the naturalization records. While the Family History Library has amassed an impressive collection, they do not have every record that has been created throughout time and this includes naturalization records.

In Conclusion

Whenever you are dealing with an immigrant ancestor, it is a good idea to get every record that has been created on the individual during their life time in the United States. You just never know which ones will supply you with the much needed information in finding them on the passenger list or in taking the lineage back into the old country.

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 rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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