Genealogists tend to lump immigration and naturalization into the same category. I have seen countless numbers of classes, articles, and books that do this very thing. Sadly most only gloss over both processes never giving much detail about either. Immigration and naturalization are two entirely different processes each with a distinct set of complexities and records. Immigration was the act by which a person arrived at a location, creating all sorts of records dealing with entry, visas, passports, ships list and the like. Naturalization is a process an immigrant can use to set up permanent residence and citizenship in their adopted country. This series will focus specifically on the naturalization laws, processes, and records research.
I have found that many people have a lot of misconceptions about naturalization records. Many times people lament the older records for lacking the information necessary for locating their family in the homeland. I don’t find this always to be true. Others seem to glom onto stories that their families were “illegals,” to justify their inability to find the records. Many times this is false. Or people don’t understand that many citizens were naturalized en masse because they lived in a territory when it became a state. It is almost without exception that every genealogist has struggled to find naturalization records of one kind or another.
When wanting to find information on an immigrant ancestor, many people turn almost immediately to naturalization records. Some have great success instantly when they find an indexed and digitized post-1906 record on FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com. Others search endlessly for years with no success. Why is there such a discrepancy, why does there seem to be such a stark contrast? The answers are in the laws that surround the process of naturalization.
Naturalization laws range from the simple and straightforward to the complex and circuitous. Needless to say, the law is both our friend and our foe when seeking naturalization records. The law is friendly by codifying what records had to be kept and by whom. The law can make things difficult when it was vague. This ambiguity allowed different jurisdictions to interpret the rules differently causing information to be recorded, stored, and handled in all kinds of ways.
Since almost every court in the United States had jurisdiction to naturalize a person, the records are spread all over the United States. Records are found in municipal, county, state, and supreme courts. Some are indexed; some are not; some are microfilmed; many are not; some are digitized; most are not. The nuances of finding some of these records is a matter of due diligence and education on the records, not just luck.
If finding naturalization records is not difficult enough, researchers can misconstrue the evidence garnered from the information in the record. Many people bring a 20th or 21st-century understanding or misunderstanding of the law to bear on 18th and 19th-century records misinterpreting the evidence in the record. Some people rely on family stories of the immigrant and their foibles and follies with the naturalization process, using this filter to evaluate their records. This type of anecdotal evidence can be highly unreliable causing problems with the analysis.
Because of the complexity of the naturalization laws, processes, and records storage, I am going to do a multipart series on naturalization records and where to find them. Currently, my plan is to break it down into basic eras of the law. First, we will look at the colonial records and discuss why people would want to naturalize, the colonial processes, and where we may find the records. The next era would be from the first federal law in 1790 to 1906 when there were significant changes made to the law. The third era will be post-1906 naturalization and the incredible records associated with the processes today as well as some of the pitfalls of dealing with open records laws.
Naturalization records are vital to discovering the roots of our immigrant ancestors. Many genealogists find nirvana when at long last they discover that elusive naturalization record key to solving their immigration problem. Yet some family historians loathe the nightmares of trying to track down information that may or may not exist. Education and understanding naturalizations are integral to this process of discovery that pays huge dividends. Understanding the nuances of the laws, the records, repositories, sources, and arrangements of these gems is crucial saving the researcher time and heartache.