As soon as the United States became an independent country, it enacted rules for citizenship. In 1790, Congress passed the first naturalization act. It was repealed and replaced with another in 1795. Although naturalization requirements have changed many times since then, it was the act of 1795, further defined in 1802, that initiated a two-part recording process that resulted in two distinct sets of papers for us to locate when researching new Americans.
Prior to 1906, documents were filed in territorial, state, or federal courts without consistency. That can make finding someone's record today difficult since you can't be certain in which court it was filed. In addition, there was no consistency of forms. A naturalization petition issued in Massachusetts looks different from one in Pennsylvania. Likewise, we find required information and the details of someone's background varying between states. Beginning in 1906, standard forms were issued from the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, which is why you will often find 1906 as the beginning or ending date of a series.
The two steps required after 1795 are declarations of intention and naturalization petitions. Confusing the two is common since they sound as if they serve the same purpose. But they document two distinct steps an immigrant needed to take, and understanding their differences is important for anyone accessing Fold3's online naturalization records.
Declarations of intention, or first papers, could be filed as soon as the immigrant arrived in the United States. Originally, they contained little biographical data, but the surviving records are helpful in identifying from where someone emigrated and their first residence in the US. Papers filed after 1906 contain much more information.
Naturalization petitions, also known as second or final papers, were filed after the applicant had met the necessary requirements of citizenship and residency. Before 1906, their content varied, often including some personal data helpful to researchers like names of witnesses, how long a petitioner lived in the country, residence, age, and former nationality. One requirement of citizenship was to renounce allegiance to the leader of one's country of birth.
Before the 19th amendment, a woman became a citizen by marrying a citizen, or through a husband who became a citizen. Although women were never directly barred from naturalization, few sought it. It wasn't until 1922 that women had to become citizens in their own right. Race stopped being a consideration in 1952.
Naturalization records are some of the most difficult documents to locate prior to 1906 and the answers they provide can be surprisingly sparse. But once you find an immigrant's intent or petition, you will rarely be disappointed by the story it tells.