Naturalization Nirvana, Nightmares, and Nuances: Colonial Complications (Part 2.0)

Naturalizations at Tammany Hall (Library of Congress)

Naturalizations at Tammany Hall (Library of Congress)

Colonial naturalizations can be summed up in one word, COMPLICATED. Before the formation of the United States, there were naturalization and citizenship processes in the thirteen colonies governed mainly by British law but vast portions of today’s country fell under the control of other countries.

In colonies like New York, citizenship records were in part Dutch and British. Due to some ambiguity in British colonial charters, colonial legislative bodies, as well as Parliament, enacted naturalization laws. All of this, along with other issues, complicates where a person’s citizenship may have been recorded.

There were many reasons people became citizens, like the ability to transfer property (real and personal) to their heirs, hold public office, vote, own a ship, and in many cases just to own land. Since Britain was the dominant player in the colonies, most became a type of British subject.

The Dutch had New Amsterdam (New York City), which was surrounded by British colonies. The Dutch concerned by the prospect of being outnumbered, made British citizens, living in New Amsterdam, take oaths of loyalty not to engage in subversive activities against the Dutch crown or their colony.

Spain had colonies in the south and the west. Old Spanish law stated that an alien who created nexus in a colony, ie. married a Spanish woman, owned a shop, owned property, or engaged in a profession, was collectively naturalized leaving few if any records[1]. France had settlements in the south and throughout one of the largest sections of land known as the Louisiana Purchase but the French allowed few naturalizations in the colonies[2]. Texas, once part of Mexico, was an independent republic, they allowed aliens to take an oath to the Republic. Some of these records remain.

So maybe complicated is not a strong enough word. For this post, we will examine mostly British naturalizations since they do make up the bulk of citizenship records created during the colonial period of the United States.

British Naturalizations

British Naturalization Law predates the American Colonies. Much of this law dictated how citizenship issues were treated in the colonies. England divided their subjects into three categories; Natural Born, Aliens, and Denizens. There were three different types of citizenship processes an immigrant could follow: Denization, Oath of Allegiance, and Collective Naturalization. There were four different authorities that granted citizenship.

  1. Letters of Denization by the Crown
  2. Naturalization by Acts of Parliament
  3. Acts of Royal Governor or Proprietor of the colonies (Note: these were eliminated by the Act of 1700)
  4. Acts of Colonial Legislatures (Note: this was in conflict with British Law)

Letters Patent of Denization is the act of making one a denizen; the conferring of the privileges of citizenship[3]. Letters Patent of Denization were given by the King, to grant people a form of citizenship. This type of colonial citizenship was the easiest to obtain. It did not require an Oath of Allegiance. The denizens were expected to follow all of the laws and rules as if they were a natural born citizen and their rights were transferable to any colony of the realm as well as England. A denizen could be granted a letter of patent for property and bequeath their property to heirs. They could not hold public office or own a ship.

Oath of Allegiance: “An oath by which a person promises and binds himself to bear true allegiance to a particular sovereign or government[4].” Some colonies would consider a person a citizen with all of the rights and privileges of a natural born citizen with just the act of taking the oath of loyalty.

Collective Naturalization: This occurs when an entire group naturalizes by conquest, act of a legislative body, or treaty. For the most part, there are not any individual naturalization papers for these citizens.  Examples of exceptions are found when New Amsterdam was taken over by Britain; all citizens were required to swear an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. A list of these citizens can be found in Denizations Naturalizations and Oaths of Allegiance in Colonial New York by Scott and Stryker-Rodda[5].

    British Laws

  1. Status of Children Born Abroad Act of 1350
  2. Linen Cloth Act 1663[6]: One of the first laws favorable to aliens who were beneficial to the Crown like skilled trades, merchants, or intellects.
  3. Act of Settlement of 1701: Barred naturalized subjects from entering high political office.
  4. Alien Act of 1705 aka Sofia Naturalization Act of 1705: Allowed the descendants of the Dowager Electress Sophia of Hanover to be in the line of succession for the throne among other benefits.
  5. Foreign Protestants Naturalization Act 1708: Allowed for the naturalization of the Huguenots among others.
  6. Naturalization Act 1711: Repealed the Act of 1708.
  7. Plantation Act 1740or the Naturalization Act 1740: Allowed Protestants to naturalize.
  8. Jewish Naturalization Act 1753: allowed Jews to become naturalized by application to Parliament. Repealed in 1754.
  9. British Nationality Act 1772: Allowed children of natural born fathers to be automatically citizens.

Colonial Laws

All of the colonies, except for New Hampshire, developed their own naturalization policies outside of English law. Granting naturalizations was a presumed right because the colonial charters did not explicitly forbid them but they also did not grant the power to naturalize either. Many colonial governors considered themselves to be an extension of the king granting them the authority to act.

The Act of Settlement of 1701 restricted local Denizations and Naturalizations. Some of the colonies continued the practice of granting citizenship, citing past practice and unclear verbiage in the law. The practice of colonial legislatures granting citizenship continued until completely banned in 1773. It is important to note that the naturalizations granted by the American colonies were not recognized in Britain or any of its other colonies.

Naturalization policies in the colonies were geographically dependent. Many of the New England colonies sans New Hampshire, adopted the laws similar to Massachusetts Bay. Ship’s passenger lists were required by all vessels entering the port of Massachusetts. Eventually, these were used to exclude undesirables such as the poor, indigent, and criminals.

Pennsylvania and New York both had religious considerations in their laws for both the Jews and Quakers, neither were made to swear an oath of allegiance. In 1730, New York added language that was inviting to Protestants. They had become very politically important to New York and their westward expansion. Pennsylvania adopted similar laws because of their expansionist aspirations. These laws were in conflict with British laws. Specifically, people could swear an oath to the King and the Governor becoming almost instant citizens, the terms of the Plantation Act of 1740 requiring people live in a colony for seven years before applying for citizenship. Pennsylvania also passed a law in 1704 that was very favorable to Swedes and Dutch residents. They were granted full citizenship rights before being issued a Letters Patent of Denization; this law was repealed by Act of Parliament in 1705.

The mid-Atlantic and southern colonies took a stance of inclusion. Early Virginia invited people by pointing out advantages of living there in the preamble of Virginia Colony naturalization law. South Carolina became a haven for the indebted by making it illegal to collect a debt from a colonist incurred before becoming a South Carolinian[7]. As one could imagine this was highly unpopular with lenders.

So maybe colonial naturalizations can be described as conflicted, complicated, and confusing. With all of the different laws from competing interests can make them difficult to find. Citizenship can be an actual British naturalization with the records held in The National Archives of Britain or possibly a colonial naturalization held in a state archive of a former colony or even a collective naturalization that left few if any records. Now that we have a glimpse of some of the issues of colonial naturalizations the next post will focus on where colonial naturalization records may be found.


[1] Lalor, John Joseph editor. Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and of the United States, by the Best American and European Writers, Volume 2. (New York: Maynard, Merill and Co., 1899). 955;, accessed 3 March 2016.

[2] Bond, Bradley. French Colonial Louisiana and the Atlantic World.(Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2005). 198.

[3] Black, Henry Campbell. Black’s Law Dictionary 3rd Ed. (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1933)

[4] ibid

[5] Scott, Kenneth and Kenn Stryker-Rodda. Denizations Naturalizations and Oaths of Allegiance in Colonial New York. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1975).

[6]  Linen Cloth Act 1663 (15 Cha. 2, c. 15)

[7] Carpenter,A.H. “Naturalization in England and the American Colonies”. The American Historical Review 1904. (American Historical Association). 299;, accessed 1 March 2016. 

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