Identifying Your Immigrant Ancestors – Part 4

A look at additional records

Naturalization Records

Just like today’s immigrants, your ancestors had the opportunity to become full US citizens by going through the naturalization process.  Well the process changed throughout the years, finding your ancestors naturalization records (see if he was naturalized) has been made easier in recent years with the digitization of many naturalization record collections by commercial organizations like ancestry.com and Fold3. FamilySearch International also has microfilmed and digitized many naturalization records, available online or at the main family history library in Salt Lake City. You can search FamilySearch’s online catalog to see whether they have naturalization records available for a location of Interest.  

But large online databases aren’t the only place to find these records – State libraries, County courthouses, and local historical societies have begun to microfilm or digitize the Naturalization records in their collections. NARA has created an index system to the naturalization records in its collection, as the request for these records have expanded exponentially in the last 10 to 15 years due, in part, to the increasing interest in dual citizenship from Italian–Americans seeking to reclaim the citizenship of their ancestors. US and Italian archives are struggling to keep up with the demand for documents like naturalization records that are needed not only for genealogical research but also for requests for dual citizenship. 

So what, exactly, are naturalization records? These were documents used by the government and assessing and either approving or denying immigrants’ applications for citizenship. Prior to 1906, these documents may simply give the ancestors name, his present country of citizenship (prior to naturalization), the court of naturalization, and the date of naturalization. After 1906, the federal government standardize the naturalization process, requiring two kinds of documents that are more informative for genealogist:

  • Declaration of Intention: Also known as “first papers,” this document has key information such as the immigrant\’s full name (often indicating any subsequent names or aliases), when and where she immigrated, place of last residence in her country of origin, which port she emigrated from, and what country she currently held citizenship in, plus her birth date and place.

  • Petition for Naturalization: Also known as “final papers,” these documents contain the immigrants full name (again with any subsequent name changes, formal or otherwise), the date / ship / Port of immigration, his current residence, and the names / birthdates / residences of the immigrant’s spouse and children. This document includes a section for when he took his oath of allegiance at the end of the process and often contained a place to write the number of his final citizenship certificate. 

An ancestor’s naturalization could have occurred in any federal, state, or country court, and (unhelpfully) individuals didn’t have to file their first and final papers at the same court. Therefore, researchers are often confused about where to research their ancestor’s naturalization record.

You can request a search for your ancestors’ pre-1906 naturalization record from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. However, be prepared for a long delay in their response as it could take up to one year to receive a response. The USCIS may still conserve post-1906 naturalization records if the application was filed in a federal court. However, you will also want to research at NARA, which conserves some federal and state naturalization records after 1906, records from the county where the ancestor lived, and sometimes records from the municipal (town) level. Explore the website of your local historical society to see where the naturalization records of that county are conserved. 

If an individual was mobile, he may have to research in all countries and towns that he resided in. For example, someone could conceivably file his Declaration of Intention in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, then move to New York City and file his Petition for Naturalization there once the designated wait time had elapsed.

Fraternal Organizations

Italian immigrants often relied on fraternal organizations during their first few years in this country. These groups provided a way to stay connected with people from the same town, province, or region, even offering life insurance that provided some assurance that immigrants’ families would have help or something had happened to them. Immigrants usually paid a small monthly fee that was used to help others within the organization.

There are hundreds of Italian fraternal organizations, cultural societies, and clubs still in operation today. A simple Google search will reveal what’s available where your ancestor resided in the United States. Ancestry.com has digitized some records from one large group, the Order Sons & Daughters of Italy in America; records include Mortuary refund claims, enrollment and death benefit records, membership applications, and lodge records.

Some resources for fraternal organizations can be found at local historical societies and in the collections of cultural organizations. For example, the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland contains old lodge records for the Order Sons & Daughters of Italy (which included membership rolls and a few vital records), information about this city’s Little Italy, and charitable organizations that serve the needy within the Italian Community. This information could go a long way towards helping you understand the life and of an Italian immigrant in Cleveland in the early 20th century. Take the time to explore such fantastic resources.

To learn more, purchase The Family Tree Italian Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Family Tree in Italy!

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Learn more about potential next steps to learn about your Italian history or pursuit of dual citizenship.