“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….” Emma Lazarus, 1883
The topic of immigration is easily one that unifies most all Americans. With the exemption of Native Americans, all Americans can trace their ancestral roots back to other regions of the world. Some came escaping religious persecution like the Huguenots or Pilgrims, while others were forced to leave their homelands to enter a life of slavery. The reasons for immigration are as a varied and diverse as the United States itself; eliciting multitudes of questions for the genealogical researcher. But alas, where would a researcher locate potential answers to this life changing event? How has the United States ever evolving immigration policies shaped our families’ history and our ability to piece together its accurate story?
To gain an understanding of the sources available for an immigrant ancestor, it is imperative to analyze the historical period in which immigration occurred. An ancestor migrating during the Colonial Era definitely did not require the paperwork that an ancestor migrating during the early twentieth century would have. Prior to The Naturalization Act of 1790, British immigrating to colonial America were automatically granted citizenship. Out of the thirteen colonies, seven had their laws to naturalize “foreigners,” through denization and an Oath of Allegiance. Denization granted citizenship for foreigners to obtain land, albeit that was the only granted right. A person who used this path to naturalization was not granted any political privileges; put simply, no right to vote or obtain political office. If a foreigner took what was called an Oath of Allegiance, they renounced all former loyalties to their previous country of origin and in return were given full citizen status. It should be noted that in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, all those that were living within the United States with the exemption of Native and African Americans, were made citizens.
From 1790 to 1906, the documentation needed to naturalize changed. A Declaration of Intention, commonly called the “first papers,” included an oath of allegiance and proof of residency. This was the first step to becoming a United States citizen. It was generally filed in a local municipal court within two years of the immigration event. After a waiting period of one to a few years, a petition was filed and all documentation and the character of the immigrant was evaluated. After all requirements were deemed complete, the immigrant was sworn in and was given a Certificate of Citizenship, or a Certificate of Naturalization. In many cases, naturalization took place in the same court in which the Declaration in Intention was filed, but not always. The Certificate of Naturalization may have been granted by the court nearest to where the applicant lived. It should be noted, dear researcher, that only men went through the naturalization process. Women and children inherited citizenship through the father, if he petitioned for it. A great example is that of Mary Kobus Pomeroy.
Mary Kobus, her siblings and their father Thomas Kobus immigrated to Winona County, Minnesota from Prussia around 1890. Researching naturalization records shows that Thomas Kobus filed a Declaration of Intention between 1892-1896. Only Thomas filed; as previously noted, Mary and her siblings would have gained citizenship under Thomas’s petition. In 1902, Mary Kobus married James Albert Pomeroy, an American citizen.
Luckily for the genealogist, many online databases, like Ancestry or Family Search, have the information or scanned copies of naturalization petitions such as this online. However, researching a female ancestor when the name of the father is unknown or who immigrated alone, can be trickier. First, try researching census records for the name of a male guardian, such as a father or brother. Finally, be prepared to visit the clerk’s office or local court house in the municipality where your ancestors lived. These locations may hold the original documents and/or other clues to unlocking your immigrant’s history. Happy Hunting!!!
More to come! Our next post will cover immigration from 1906 to our present day.
- Jennifer Santorelli, Researcher, APHGA
https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Naturalization_and_Citizenship. Accessed on Feb 1, 2017.
http://search.ancestry.com. Minnesota Naturalization Records Index, 1854-1957. Accessed on Feb.1, 2017.