A Tweet, the Naturalization process, and Court Records

This post is inspired by my December 13th tweet (@k_bubbs):

Every time I start to get cocky a/b my search skills, I get a court records request & I’m instantly humbled. #stilllearning #iwilltriumph

As a reference archives technician at NARA, I’m responsible for responding to formal requests  regarding our holdings.  The majority of the requests center on naturalization.  First, let me give you a mini-lesson on naturalization for those who may or may not know.  The first thing an immigrant did when applying to be naturalized was file a Declaration of Intention.  Essentially, an immigrant filled out a form stating that they intended to become a naturalized citizen of the United States.  Then there was a waiting period.  It could be anywhere from 1 to 7 years depending on the immigration laws at the time.  After this period was up, an immigrant would go to a court and then file their Petition of Naturalization. Once they filed that and everything checked out (i.e. they had a witness to attest that they were an upstanding citizen) the judge would decide.  After their paperwork was approved, they had a swearing in ceremony and received a certificate of naturalization.

I’ve gotten my search routine down.  Based on the information provided by the researcher, I start with the name index.  If I find the name, the name index will provide the petition number.  Using that number, I turn to the petitions for naturalization.  For most researchers and genealogists, the Petition for Naturalization is the most important document.  The petitions contain a rich source of information.  This is especially true for early to mid-20th century Petitions for Naturalization.  They contained information on where the immigrant was from, a physical description of the immigrant, where they lived, what they did for a living, name of their spouse if applicable, where the spouse was from, and a list of  their children and their birth dates.  If you’re really lucky, the petition may have a picture of the immigrant.

After a month and half of these types of request, I could do them in my sleep.  And, for the most part, I rarely came across any problems.  But….and there’s a big but, court records are my weakness.  Case in point, I had a recent request for court records regarding segregation on street cars.  The researcher was looking for two cases in particular.  The problem I have with court records is knowing what type of case it is.  At first glance, that shouldn’t be too difficult but when you have very little knowledge of the court system that can be a major obstacle.  The types of cases are admiralty, equity, law, civil, and criminal.  In some cases, I’ve even seen “general” cases.  I mean, really guys?

And, with some cases, going to Google isn’t really an option because it may or may not be a well known case.  The search processes, I’ve discovered, varies depending on the case and what we have in our holdings from a particular court.  If I don’t have the court case number, I turn to either the index or docket to determine the case number.  In that way, the general process is similar to handling naturalization requests.  I’ve got to have that number in order to point me to the original case file.

While I’ve had my ups and downs, the process has taught me the importance of asking for help.  Because, why keep banging your head against a brick wall when there’s someone who can help?! After several attempts, I usually turn to our resident archivist (who’s first name is the last name of a president…figure that one out) who is an expert in court records.   And, since I’ve taken to documenting my search process, he helps me to figure out where in the process I could have gone a different route or, more accurately, where I took a horrible wrong turn.

It’s a process but like I said in my tweet, I will triumph.  It’s only a matter of time.

I find the naturalization process to be really interesting so I’ve provided additional information and well as some interesting facts.

Little known facts about the naturalization process:

An immigrant could file for naturalization at any court be it local, city, county, or federal.

Immigrants could file their Declaration of Intention or their Petition of Naturalization at different courts.  For example, an immigrant could file their Declaration of Intention at a city court and file their Petition for Naturalization at a federal court.  (At the National Archives, I’ve come across this often.  We’ll have the Declaration of Intention but not the Petition of Naturalization).

After 1922, each spouse had to file separately for naturalization and the same case applied to children over the age of 18.  Before 1922, if a husband naturalized  his wife would receive citizenship under their husband’s naturalization this was called derivative citizenship and vice versa.   This was the same under a parent’s naturalization for their children.

Interesting facts:

A US-born citizen could lose their citizenship if they married an immigrant.  (Not sure if this applied to men who married a woman who was an immigrant.  But, it was the case for women marrying an immigrant.  This was in the 18th, 19th, and, I believe, early 20th century)

Being naturalized was not a requirement to live in the U.S. but an immigrant needed to be naturalized if they wanted to vote.

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About Ashley S

I'm an archivist!
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