Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series on the history of American citizenship and finding related genealogical records.
After leaving the determination of who received citizenship to individual states in the years following the Revolutionary War, in 1790, Congress passed the first national laws setting rules for individuals to become naturalized citizens.
The new laws provided that any free white persons older than 21 and of good moral character could apply for citizenship in any court of record in the state where they lived.
A two-step process led applicants through a five-year period. After being in the states for two years (with one year in the state in which they were applying), aliens could file a Declaration of Intent to become citizens (also called their “first papers”). After another three years, the aliens could file an actual petition for citizenship (or “final papers”). The court would hold a hearing to determine the applicant’s character and residency and then administer the oath for citizenship. In 1795, Congress repealed the earlier legislation and added a new law with these points:
1. Free white persons who had been in the country for three years could declare their intention to become citizens (first papers).
2. Two years later — after applicants had lived in the United States for five years — they could apply for citizenship (final papers).
3. Persons with European titles to royalty had to renounce the status.
The court reviewed the papers and held a hearing on the applicant’s residency and character. The applicant then took an oath of allegiance, and the court recorded a final naturalization order.
In 1798, Congress drastically altered the residence requirements. Applicants could file first papers after being in the country for five years but could not apply for citizenship until they had lived here for 14 years. Congress left these caveats in place for four years. In 1802 it stepped back and required three years residence for first papers and five years residency for final papers.
Being able to apply for citizenship through any court in the country was a convenience for our ancestors. What was convenient for them, however, only complicates our research, because we must search in multiple locations. An ancestor could go to any court (within the state where he lived) — federal, state or county — and apply using whatever forms or paperwork each individual court decided to use.
A clerk recorded each naturalization into that court’s minute books. The books weren’t dedicated to naturalization records, and they included all manner of other legal issues and matters before that individual court.
The National Archives in Washington, D.C., has a few indexes and records that local courts have donated. These are available on microfilm. See next week’s column about federal records to learn more about getting copies through the National Archives.
The naturalization process remained basically the same from 1802 until 1906, with some changes along the way for special groups of citizens. In upcoming weeks this column will look at these groups. Next week this column will address the 1906 acts that drastically changed the face of citizenship in the United States.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Baylife, The Tampa Tribune, 202 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.