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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Heritage Hunting: Citizenship laws changed with the times

Editor’s note: This is the final of a four-part series on the history of American citizenship and finding related genealogical records.

The earliest naturalization laws set a path for free white persons to become citizens. As laws changed through the years, special rules applied to women, soldiers and Native Americans.


Before 1922, women and children became U.S. citizens when their husbands and fathers did. Only unmarried women needed to pursue citizenship on their own.

At this time, married women had no rights and were at the mercy of their husbands to represent them in any legal action. They also had no voting rights.

A congressional act in 1855 stated that any woman who married a citizen of the United States and “who might herself be lawfully naturalized [meaning she was white]” could be deemed a citizen.

Any court of record could bestow citizenship during this time period. Each court also could interpret the law and how it applied to an individual applicant. For example, various courts disagreed about what should happen to a woman born into citizenship if she married an alien. Some courts interpreted that a woman forfeited her citizenship, but other courts felt she did not loose her American citizen status unless she left the country and made residence with her husband abroad.

After 1907, each woman became a citizen when her husband gained the status. But a woman who married a Chinese, Japanese or Filipino man did forfeit her U.S. citizenship because men of those races could not become American citizens between 1882 and 1943.

In 1922, Congress passed another law, The Married Women’s Act, which gave each woman independently a nationality of her own. One requirement fit into the process: If a woman’s husband were a citizen, she did not have to file an intent to become a citizen, she only had a single step, that of filing a petition for citizenship. If the woman’s husband were not a citizen, she had to complete the two-step process with first and final papers.


An act of 1862 provided that men who were 21 years old and older and honorably discharged from the military could file a petition for citizenship without filing an earlier Intent to Become a Citizen (also called “first papers”).

In 1894, men with honorable discharges who had five consecutive years of service in the Navy or Marines could file for citizenship without filing first papers.

During World War I, any soldier serving in the war could file for citizenship without first papers or proof of five years residency.

Some family historians believe that a man automatically became a citizen if he served in the military, but this was never true. At all times he had to file a petition for citizen (final papers) and take appropriate loyalty oaths.


Native Americans became citizens under an 1887 law if they lived away from their tribes and “adopted habits of civilized life.” A 1924 act gave citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 gave black Americans full citizenship by stating that the same rights enjoyed by white males were granted to all males “without distinction of race or color or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.”

For Native Americans and black Americans, no petitions were required, so no records were created — all members of these two groups became citizens en masse.

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 [email protected] She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.

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