Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series on the history of American citizenship and finding related genealogical records.
Immigration and naturalization are hot topics in today’s political world. But the topics and practices have historically confused courts and would-be citizens.
Looking for proof that an ancestor came to this country legally, and subsequently became a citizen, can be confusing. Understanding the laws and how the courts have interpreted them can make the genealogical research process a little less daunting.
Individuals who were in the new United States following the Revolutionary War had to choose between being an American or remaining a British citizen. Generally, those who didn’t want to become citizens left the new states. Most states passed laws confiscating property owned by Loyalists.
The community accepted as citizens those who stayed and kept their property.
As the war ended, there was no strong federal government. The country was yet to define any issues, and yet to identify and resolve many problems. Initially, determining who would be recognized as a citizen fell to each individual state.
For example, the Georgia Legislature in 1781 passed a law that bestowed citizenship on individuals who had “taken British protection or oath contrary to their allegiance to this state” if those individuals subsequently saw the “illegality” of such actions. They further had to show their “attachment and loyalty to the United States by risking their persons and engagements” by joining the army of the state or the United States on or before June 5, 1782. The only exception was that those “guilty of murder or plundering or distressing the peaceable inhabitants of this or any other state” could not attain citizenship.
Individuals who came into the state, joined a state military regiment before Oct. 1, 1782, were not guilty of one the specified crimes, or who stood trial and were found not guilty of such crimes, also could become citizens.
These individuals then had to take an oath swearing they did “in truth and sincerity cheerfully and desirously renounce and abjure the king of Great Britain, his heirs and successors,” and swear allegiance to the state of Georgia and the Declaration of Independence as passed by Congress on July 4, 1776.
Subsequently, these individuals petitioned the Georgia legislature to become citizens of the state.
Those with ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War can pretty much assume the government accepted their ancestors as citizens of the new United States. Ancestors that didn’t fight, but who apparently retained their property and remained in the community, apparently also were accepted as citizens.
But researchers still should take the time to explore legislation passed in the states where ancestors are believed to have lived prior to 1790. Researchers can access records of early acts of each state’s legislatures at the individual state archives.
Next week this column will look at citizenship laws from 1790 to 1905.
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.