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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Record Alternative on Aliens
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 21, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

When you find yourself researching an immigrant ancestor, everyone tells you to get the naturalization records. They are supposed to hold all the keys to your research woes. And, if you can find a person's second papers, you'll often find that this is true. However, there are some of us who have discovered that our ancestors, while traveling over during the height of the immigrant influx, appeared to not become naturalized citizens.

Does this mean that all is lost? Actually no. There may be alternate record sources for those of our ancestors who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s when they chose not to become naturalized citizens.

Think beyond naturalization.

Alien Registration

Throughout the history of the United States, alien registration acts have been passed from time to time, usually when at war or afraid a war is eminent. These alien registration acts required those who were not citizens, by birth or naturalization, to register. The forms that were required will sometimes supply you with the information you need as to place of birth and date and place of arrival in the United States.

The Quasi War with France in 1798 was what prompted the first such act. This act didn't affect all aliens, just alien enemies (defined as all male citizens over the age of fourteen who were from a nation that was formally at war with the United States). A similar alien enemy registration would take place during the War of 1812. However, while there was emphasis on the French and British at these two times, all aliens had to register with the local court from 1802 to 1828. Those for Providence County, Rhode Island can be found online. A similar enemy alien registration was done in 1917 and 1918 during World War I, when Germans were required to register.

In addition to these enemy alien registrations, there have been two additional Alien Registration Acts, one in 1929 and the other in 1940. These were similar to the registrations that took place from 1802 to 1828 that required all aliens had to register.

Information Found in the Records

As with most of the records that genealogists deal with, especially when it comes to immigrants, the information required on alien registrations has changed over the years. The more recent registrations asked for a lot more information than earlier counterparts.

For instance, the alien registrations from Providence, Rhode Island in 1798 asked for

  • Name
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Place of birth
  • Date of arrival
  • Citizenship
  • Residence
  • Intended residence
  • Name of the alien's sponsor

By the 1940 Alien Registration Act, the form was now two pages in length, and required a fingerprint in addition to the answers to the questions

  • Full name
  • Name under which the alien entered the United States
  • Other names by which the alien has been known (maiden name for women was put here)
  • Street address and address of post office
  • Date and place of birth
  • Citizenship
  • Gender, marital status, and race
  • Physical description (height, weight, hair and eye color)
  • When and where last arrived in the United States and how (train, steamship, etc.)
  • When first arrived in the United States
  • How long the alien has lived in the United States
  • How long the alien expects to remain in the United States
  • Occupation and employment information
  • Memberships or planned memberships in clubs, organizations and societies
  • Military service
  • If and when the alien has begun the naturalization process
  • Number of relatives living in the US (parents, spouse, children)
  • Whether or not the alien has had any arrests
  • Whether or not the alien has worked for a foreign government in the last 5 years

Locating Alien Registrations

Those registrations in the 1940s, until April 1944, are on microfilm at the Immigration and Nationalization Service. They are searchable by name, date of birth and place of birth, but are protected by the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act. This generally means that like SS-5 forms for Social Security, you must be able to show proof of death when requesting a copy of the alien registration record.

A number of the earlier registrations can be found at the National Archives and you will also find that many of the early ones have been indexed in the Passenger and Immigration Lists Index by P. William Filby and Mary K. Meyer.

You may find that they, like the records in Providence County, Rhode Island, have been transcribed to the Internet. While probably not a complete list yet, at least twenty years of those for Providence are now available online. You may find that similar projects can be found for other counties.

You also want to be sure and do a keyword search in the Family History Library Catalog for alien registration as you will find that they have many of these records available. Finding the records at the Library would make a trip to a branch of the National Archives or a professional researcher unnecessary.

Eligible for the Draft?

Many believe that because their ancestor was not a citizen during the World War I draft that he was exempt. This is not true. The draft was for all males, regardless of citizenship status in the United States.

If your immigrant arrived before 5 June 1917 and fell within the ages of 21 and 30, then he was expected to show up at his draft board on June 5th. Even those who had no intention of staying in the United States, who were simply traveling through the states, but were there on the 5th or the dates of the later registrations were expected to fill out the registration form. The 12 September 1918 registration date included those born from 13 September 1872 to those born 12 September 1900 as well as those who had failed to register earlier when the dates of birth were 6 June 1886 to 24 August 1897. This included those who had immigrated after 5 June 1917 and before 12 September 1918.

In Conclusion

While many people think about the alien registrations that took place in the 1940s, you can see that aliens have had to register at many different times throughout the history of the United States. While the questions asked weren't always as thorough as the registration in 1940, you may still find the most prized information — the birth place — in some of the earlier registrations, along with the physical description which I find to also be a prize. Finally, if your ancestor would have been eligible for the draft during World War I, don't overlook the draft cards as another possibility.

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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