The Star-Herald

Naturalized or not?

Were your ancestors naturalized American citizens?  Naturalization isn’t something new on our national horizon.  Even in the 17th century, the English colonies required an oath of allegiance to the English crown or confirmation from a Protestant minister that the alien was in good standing with the church before he could become a citizen of a colony.  

Most settlers in the English colonies were from Britain, but there were others.  For example, in the mid-seventeenth century, Protestant French Huguenots were driven from Catholic France in a flee or be massacred situation.  While the Huguenots were Protestant they were also French, always a matter of distrust among the English since the nations had been warring for over 400 years and would continue for years to come.  Pennsylvania faced an influx of Germans known today as Pennsylvania Dutch. In each instance the new arrivals were distrusted and required to take the oath of allegiance to become citizens.

After the Revolution, the United States Congress passed a naturalization act spelling out how an alien could become a citizen.  He (women didn’t count for much) would have to live in the U.S. for a specified time period, then file a Declaration of Intention stating the desire to become a citizen, known as “first papers.”  Next was an application (or petition) to be naturalized called “second papers.” Finally, the would-be American was naturalized and received his certificate of citizenship.

Over the years the process was tweaked to address problems such as whether the descendants of slaves brought here against their will could be legal citizens.  The Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 declared that people “born or naturalized by the U.S. … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” It is notable that this didn’t include Native Americans, who weren’t acknowledged as citizens until decades later.  

If you don’t know if your ancestor went through the naturalization process the first step is to find him/her in the U.S. Census.  Census takers obligingly documented the citizenship status of each enumerated head of the household from 1820 right through 1940, the last census year released to date.  The census taker was interested in foreigners residing in the household, or they might ask if the males could legally vote, a backhanded way of finding out if someone was an alien or not.  

By 1900 the status of naturalization was asked plainly, and in the 1920 census the year of naturalization was asked, a terrific assist in researching a naturalized ancestor.  In order to save space in the census forms you’ll encounter abbreviations: “Na” means naturalized citizen; “Pa,” filed first papers; and “Al,” an alien. Remember, not all aliens sought citizenship.  Some came to work here and then returned home. Most usually that was because friends and relatives remained in the old country and examples of this include Canadians who came to work in the mills.

In my next column I’ll discuss how to find records of your ancestors’ naturalization process.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com. Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at the Caribou Library at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.

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