Genealogy Tip: What if Your Grandparents Came from Another Country? (Part II)

Introduction: In this article, the second of two, Jessica Edwards gives tips for researching your grandparents if they came from another country. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 21,000 people to her family tree!

In Part I of this article yesterday, I discussed the naturalization process your grandparents may have gone through if they came to the U.S. from another country, and defined some terms that are helpful to know. In today’s article, I’ll present a two-step process to find and use your ancestor’s naturalization records.

Photo: unidentified man and woman, c. 1850
Photo: unidentified man and woman, c. 1850. Credit: George Eastman House; Wikimedia Commons.

First Step: Don’t Make It a Stumbling Block!

To begin researching your immigrant ancestor, start with this simple rule: Do NOT begin your family history search there. Start with yourself and work backward in time. Use census records to confirm where your parents, grandparents and their parents lived. Be aware that many censuses will report different places they were residing because of changing geographical boundaries, so make a list of places you find – and also know that, because of wars and other reasons, some smaller towns may no longer exist.

Religious records will help fill in the blanks, and maybe even tell you if your ancestor moved to the area from another state or another country. Be sure to include as much of the following information as you can when searching the National Archives, to make the likelihood of a successful search greater:

  • Name of petitioner (including known variants)
  • Date of birth
  • Approximate date of entry into the U.S.
  • Approximate date of naturalization
  • Where the individual was residing at the time of naturalization (city/county/state)
  • Country of origin

In most cases, the National Archives will not have a copy of the certificate of citizenship. Two copies of the certificate were created – one given to the petitioner as proof of citizenship, and one forwarded to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Certificates of citizenship were issued by the federal courts until October 1991, when INS took over responsibility for naturalization proceedings.

Second Step: Starting Down a Long Path

Eventually, you’ll look for naturalization records, since this event is closer to you in time then the actual immigration. Look at naturalization records available online. But be aware of these warnings from the National Archives:

“All INS records are now overseen by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS maintains duplicate copies of court records (including the certificate of citizenship) created September 27, 1906-March 31, 1956 within Certificate Files (C-Files). Beginning April 1, 1956, INS began filing all naturalization records in a subject’s Alien File (A-File). C-Files and certain A-Files can be requested through the USCIS Genealogy Program. If you are a naturalized citizen seeking your own documentation, you can place a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to USCIS to obtain a copy of your A-File and/or request a replacement certificate of citizenship from USCIS.

  • Although there can be inaccuracies in naturalization records, the records cannot be changed or corrected by National Archives staff because they are historic documents that are maintained as they were created by the courts.
  • National Archives staff can only issue a certified copy of a document in our custody (see 44 USC 2116 and 44 USC 3112).
  • The National Archives does not have authority to issue an apostille. The US Department of State has the authorization to issue an apostille of a copy of a document certified by the National Archives.
  • The National Archives does not have the authority to issue a certification of non-existence of a record, and can only issue a negative search letter. Negative results for a search of National Archives holdings only indicates that a naturalization record was not found in the possession of the National Archives, not that it does not exist.

One good site to check out is the National Archives Naturalization Records page.

On a recent search, I found both the Declaration of Intention and Petition for Naturalization of Giovanni Guiseppe Allera. These records are a goldmine for genealogists.

For example, I learned the following information from Allera’s Declaration of Intention:

  • What he looked like physically
  • Where he was born and when
  • Where in the U.S. he arrived and when
  • His address as of the date of the document (which might help with censuses)
  • His occupation
  • His wife’s name

Allera’s Petition for Naturalization (filled out about a year later) had the following additional information:

  • He had changed his occupation and address
  • Where he emigrated from and on what ship
  • He had changed his name legally to John Joseph Allera
  • His wife’s birthdate

Both documents were filled out by himself, so evidently he was literate (if someone else fills out either document it had/has to be recorded who did it and their relationship to the petitioner).

Some states have other sections on their forms, so read them carefully to see what you can learn from them. They may mention siblings or parents’ names, when they were married, how long they were in a profession/job, and more. By knowing the ship’s name they came in on, you can then check the ship’s passenger logs to see if family members came with them. Some logs mention who they were going to live with if approved for entry, or their sponsor’s name, and additional information which may give you other possible documents to learn more. Some employers mentioned may have employment records to give you more information if they were a large company.

Do Your Work Slowly and Pass the Torch

Just remember that doing good genealogy work takes time (after all, think about how many years have passed in your ancestors’ lives). Be sure to DOCUMENT everything so that you know where you’ve already looked for that information, and also so that others can see for themselves what you’ve found (some descendant of yours may pick up your torch of the family history and find out even more).

It also doesn’t hurt to go back occasionally and re-examine the documents you found earlier, as you may have missed some things. Also, I look at the petitions before and after the one you found, as sometimes families go in together to apply – so it might save you some searching. To cite the source, I would be sure to include the state and county applied to, the date of the application, page number, and link to the image (some people may also copy and paste the image into a document to save time in looking at the document again).

Happy Hunting!

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