Naturalization of Foreign-Born Ancestors

Naturalization Basics

Naturalization is the process by which a foreign citizen becomes a citizen of a new country.  Millions of immigrants to the United States have gained their American citizenship and it is likely one or more of your ancestors is included in this count.

Naturalization is generally a two-step process beginning with filing a "declaration of intent" (so-called "first papers") to become a U.S. citizen.  After three additional years, the alien could file a "petition for naturalization".  Once granted, a certificate of citizenship was issued by the court.  Per U.S. law, these two steps did not have to take place in the same court.

For the immigrant the benefits that come with being a naturalized citizen include being able to vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, transfer real property, pay taxes and receive the protection of the law.  It was the fastest way to fully integrate into the society of their new home country.

Another thing to keep in mind is the concept of "derivative" citizenship which was granted to wives and minor children of naturalized men.  It will likely be fruitless to search for citizenship documents for the wife or children of a naturalized citizen because they will have been automatically granted citizenship.

My Ancestor

My own foreign-born ancestor, Joseph Hoesl, immigrated to the United States at a time when immigrants were expected to quickly assimilate into American society.  How eager an immigrant was to gain their American citizenship can tell a lot about their state of mind.  Some immigrants were perfectly happy living in America without declaring their allegiance to their adopted country, while others were eager to file as soon as they were able.

Joseph entered the country on March 12, 1883 and within six months had submitted his declaration of intent paperwork in the local county court.  He aimed to take advantage of the U.S. Homestead Act and lay claim to a 160-acre tract of land and needed to meet the citizenship requirement.

Finding Naturalization Records

The requirements for American citizenship changed many times over the years as U.S. law was frequently amended.  Because of the oft changing rules, it is impossible to provide hard-and-fast rules about the content or even the existence of records.

For many years, an alien could become naturalized in any court of record.  Therefore, most people went to the court most convenient to them, usually a county court.  As a result, Declaration of Intention and Petition for Naturalization paperwork could be found in federal, state, county or even city municipal courts.

How can I find out if my ancestor was naturalized?

Due to the availability of Federal Census records to just about anyone for free (via, makes it an excellent diagnostic tool.  Check various Federal and State census years to see if your ancestor reported themselves as being naturalized.  If so, there is likely court documents available.

Since a large number of people are interested in researching their foreign-born relatives, naturalization records made juicy targets for early indexing efforts (the process by which paper records are converted into a computer searchable index).  Therefore, records are available at many of the larger collections including Ancestry, Fold3, GenealogyBank, FamilySearch as well as the Library of Congress and National Archives (NARA). 

This is certainly good news for genealogists researching their relatives.  From analysis of the 1890 through 1930 Federal censuses, of the foreign-born persons listed, 25 percent had not become naturalized or filed their "first papers".  This means that 75 percent had submitted paperwork which likely still exists today.

If you fail to find your ancestor’s paperwork in digital collections, your job gets a lot harder.  You will have to check microfilmed records for the court where you think your ancestor filed for citizenship, visit the courthouse or send a written request. 

County courts and state supreme courts are the most common locations for court filings, but they also could have been filed at a circuit, district, probate or common pleas court.  You can consult reference books such as “The Red Book” to find detailed information about the courts near your ancestor’s home.

Although there is no guarantee that your ancestor’s records are still available, there is a pretty good chance you can find their records, maybe even a digitized image of the original.  One thing is for sure, if you don’t make the effort to look, you won’t find anything.

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