Finding Citizenship Records for U.S. Immigrant Ancestors (Pre-1906)

By Julia Morse

Peter E. Harms (b. 1835, Hanstedt, Hannover, Germany) and his wife Dorathea Damman Harms (b. 1839, Germany), posing on their Benton County, Missouri farm. Each migrated to the United States with their parents in the 1840’s. (Colorized by DeOldify through MyHeritage.)

Last week one of my mother’s cousins emailed asking if we knew if our German immigrant ancestors obtained citizenship. 

It was a question I had never really thought much about.  Herman “Sea” Harms and his wife Catherina (Meyer) Harms immigrated with their children from northern Germany to the United States in the 1840’s, establishing a farm home in Illinois before ultimately settling in Benton County, Missouri in 1853.  They were busy making a living farming and pleased to enjoy home comfort, enough food, community church and schools.  Children born into the family after the immigration were citizens.  Was it a priority for them to apply for citizenship? 

If you already know where I looked first to answer this question, gold star for you!:  There is citizenship information in most of the U.S. Censuses from 1820 to 1930—records most of us have already accessed.

Use the U.S. Census to find starting information about citizenship, possibly the year of immigration

  • 1820, 1820, 1830, and 1870 censuses report whether the individual is a citizen.
  • The 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 censuses report the year of arrival and whether naturalization papers had been filed or the naturalization process completed.
  • The 1920 census reports the year of naturalization.

For all these, you generally have to dig into the census image to get this information; it is not currently fully transcribed. 


Headers from the 1870 U.S. Census form, showing the citizenship headers for columns 19 and 20.

While the censuses give self-reported information which may be prone to error, chances are good that it provides information that is fairly accurate.  It is also usually information that the family researcher already has at hand—easily accessible.  (If you haven’t already found free access to the U.S. Census, try FamilySearch.org.) This information can help direct a further search for legal naturalization records, or, if citizenship is not reported, affirm that citizenship may not have been established. 

Up to 1870, the question of citizenship will be for males only.  Although the 1870 census does list the names of females, the citizenship question is only for males who would be eligible to vote.

By looking at the 1870 Census records, we saw that Herman and his grown son Peter were both listed as voting citizens. They were naturalized.

Herman and his wife had passed away before the 1900 census, but we have the record of his son Peter, who had immigrated with them. Peter Harms’ record reports that he immigrated to the U.S. in 1846, and there is a note “Na” in the column for “Naturalization.”  This confirms that he was a naturalized citizen. 



The record of Peter’s wife Dorathea shows that she immigrated in 1845, but the naturalization field is blank.  We initially hypothesized that as a woman without the right to vote, there was no perceived need for her to apply for citizenship.  However, further research suggests that she had what is considered “derivative citizenship.” According to the FamilySearch wiki on Naturalization, “From 1855 to 1922, women became citizens if they married a U.S. citizen, or her husband naturalized while they were married.”[1]  So, she would have derived naturalization through her marriage to Peter.  Apparently the census enumerator felt no need to indicate this.

There are other codes that can be designated in the naturalization box of the 1900 census.  One of Peter’s neighbors is designated further down on the page lists “al,” which means the individual is still an alien who has not begun any citizenship paperwork—not naturalized.   “PA” would be used to indicate that the immigrant had paperwork on file and was therefore in the process of obtaining citizenship.  “NR” means the census taker made “no report.”[1, 2]

The 1910 through 1930 censuses also report on year of immigration and naturalization status. 

The 1920 census is the only census that additionally reports the year of naturalization.  If one of the children of Herman “Sea” Harms lived to that census year, we would have a report of their naturalization year—perhaps helpful in finding the official naturalization record.  Since 1790, children of immigrants have always obtained their naturalization when their father or mother becomes naturalized.  A naturalization year when they were still children would almost certainly be an indication of the father’s naturalization year.  Unfortunately, none of these Harms children lived to see 1920.

I reviewed additional census records from Peter and his siblings to corroborate their reports of the family’s immigration year:

SonCensusImmigration year reported
Peter19001846
Peter19101848
Henry C.19001847
Henry C.1910[left blank]
John19001847
John19101847

We can see that Peter’s report of immigration year is inconsistent with the year reported by his younger brothers Henry and John.  This highlights the unreliability of self-reported immigration dates in the census.  However, the range of dates from 1846 to 1848 does narrow down the immigration dates, with repetition suggesting a best guess of 1847.  (For more discussion on reconciling conflicting records, see Paul Chiddicks’ article “Fact or Fiction.”)

Searching for legal naturalization records prior to 1906 can be challenging

1906 marked the creation of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, which is what we now know as Immigration and Naturalization Services or INS.  Before that time, naturalization was handled by local and regional courts. 

Some U.S. Naturalization records are indexed and found online, such as through FamilySearch (free), Ancestry, and MyHeritage.   However, these are far from complete—only sporadically available, just as birth, and death records are not completely available. 

FamilySearch has an excellent page with links to resources of naturalization records from various states:  https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Naturalization_and_Citizenship_Online_Genealogy_Records

Ancestry’s paid subscription provides regional naturalization records that are often not yet available from free resources.  There are some records available from MyHeritage and FamilySearch. 

There are some cases where FamilySearch provides access to microfilm image collections that have not been indexed.  It is worth checking for images for your county of interest.  Although they are not indexed, you can often explore the record order, which may be alphabetized by name. 

I checked the FamilySearch image collections for Washington County, Illinois and Benton County, Missouri, but found no records available on naturalization. 

Other records indicating citizenship include homestead records and some military records. 

In some locations, such as California, voter registration records are available.  This would be another way of affirming citizenship. 

How helpful is it to find the naturalization records for our ancestor?

In our case, obtaining the specific legal citizenship records may provide little new information on our immigrant Harms family.  Other records and connections have provided us with a link to German families and villages where they were born, christened, and married.  The census records enrich the story we know, giving us the satisfaction that these families had the opportunity to enjoy being voting citizens in their communities.

For those who know little about their immigrant ancestor’s pre-immigration life may hope for some additional information from the naturalization legal records, though it may be very little.  Most pre-1906 naturalization records contain the name of immigrant, current residence, and country of origin or allegiance.  Much less common, but possible is to find record of port and date of arrival, age of immigration, or birthplace of immigrant. 

If your ancestor applied for a passport, you may be blessed with an especially rich set of details: place of birth, date of immigration, ship name, naturalization date and place, place of permanent address in the U.S., and occupation, as well as description of the applicant (height, eye color, hair color, and facial features). 


Example of rich data found on an 1891 passport application from a St. Louis saloon keeper named Herman Harms. (He is not a known relation to the author’s Harms family.)

For more information on researching immigrant ancestors, see the Family Search wiki “United States Naturalization and Citizenship” (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Naturalization_and_Citizenship).

________________

Sources:

[1] FamilySearch Research Wiki, “Naturalization Terms and Acronyms,” https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Naturalization_Terms_and_Acronyms

[2] FamilySearch Research Wiki, “United States Naturalization and Citizenship,” https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/United_States_Naturalization_and_Citizenship.

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