Finding the Ship Manifest using Naturalization Records

We all have that elusive ancestor who arrived from a port in Europe. Finding your ancestor on a ship manifest can seem like a daunting task.  Names are indexed improperly, inconsistencies of  “arrival year”  the 1910, 20 and 30 census may exist, some changed their names after arrival and others have a name so common that there are hundreds of possibilities.

Today I will talk about using Naturalization records as a Manifest finding aid. 

First find your relatives in the census. Last week’s blog gives some census search tips

  • 1900: If foreign born, year of immigration and whether naturalized
  • 1910: If foreign born, year of immigration and whether naturalized, language spoken if not able to speak English
  • 1920: If foreign born, year of immigration, whether naturalized, year of naturalization
  • 1930: If foreign born, year of immigration, whether naturalized, language spoken in home before coming to US, and ability to speak English

Review the census entries (which aren’t always accurate) and look for “Al” alien, “Pa” papers, which means your ancestor had declared his intent to become a citizen, and “Na” which meant he was already naturalized (meaning he became a US a citizen). If they were naturalized, you are in luck!

The naturalization record for your ancestors will usually list when they arrived and a town of origin plus lots of other great information. Hopefully the dates on the census records will be close to the actual arrival date, but always expand your search by a few years. The declaration and naturalization dates may be estimated using the arrival date + 2 and arrival date +5: immigrants had to be in US for two years before they could “declare intent” and then another three years before finally being naturalized (although there were exceptions to this rule).

Exceptions included (copied from

The first major exception was that “derivative” citizenship was granted to wives and minor children of naturalized men. From 1790 to 1922, wives of naturalized men automatically became citizens. This also meant that an alien woman who married a U.S. citizen automatically became a citizen. (Conversely, an American woman who married an alien lost her U.S. citizenship, even if she never left the United States.) From 1790 to 1940, children under the age of 21 automatically became naturalized citizens upon the naturalization of their father. Unfortunately, however, names and biographical information about wives and children are rarely included in declarations or petitions filed before September 1906. For more information about women in naturalization records, see Marian L. Smith, “Women and Naturalization, ca. 1802-1940,” Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer 1998): 146-153.

The second major exception to the general rule was that, from 1824 to 1906, minor aliens who had lived in the United States 5 years before their 23rd birthday could file both their declarations and petitions at the same time.

The third major exception to the general rule was the special consideration given to veterans. An 1862 law allowed honorably discharged Army veterans of any war to petition for naturalization–without previously having filed a declaration of intent–after only 1 year of residence in the United States. An 1894 law extended the same no-previous-declaration privilege to honorably discharged 5-year veterans of the Navy or Marine Corps. Over 192,000 aliens were naturalized between May 9, 1918, and June 30, 1919, under an act of May 9, 1918, that allowed aliens serving in the U.S. armed forces during “the present war” to file a petition for naturalization without making a declaration of intent or proving 5 years’ residence. Laws enacted in 1919, 1926, 1940, and 1952 continued various preferential treatment provisions for veterans.

Naturalization records usually name the vessel, the arrival date and the name of the port where your ancestor arrived. You can then use that information to locate ship records.

The petition for naturalization and declaration of intent  have a wealth of information. If you have an subscription, below is a link to an example of what you can expect to see (be sure to “page forward” a few screens to see the different documents):

Where you can search for the naturalization records depends on when they applied. Before 1906 your ancestors could apply to any court, so most went to the county courthouse because it was convenient. Starting in late 1906, all applications had to instead be made in a federal court. recently posted the index of naturalization records from the World Project for a number of states.  The index might give you the court that they went to to be naturalized (i.e. US District Court). If you find the information in the index, you can order a copy of the document online at the National Archives (or you can visit a branch of the Archives).

Here are the related databases in

  • Selected U.S. Naturalization Records – Original Documents, 1790-1974 (World Archives Project)
  • Index to Petitions for Naturalization filed in New York City, 1792-1989
  • Selected U.S. Naturalization Record Indexes, 1791-1966 (Indexed in World Archives Project)
  • U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes, 1794-1995
  • U.S. Naturalization Records – Original Documents, 1795-1972

You will get better results searching in each individual database. Click the search button on the top of the screen in ancestry, then on the right select “View All Ancestry Titles” and then search for those titles. Make sure you are using “old search” – it works much better than “new search”. also has some Naturalization records.

Otherwise go to the National Archives (link above) and order a copy of the document online

A great book is (get it at your  library, via  interlibrary loan or at Schaefer, Christine. Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1997).

 The book  is divided by state, county and city. It  identifies naturalization repositories, giving the types of records held, coverage dates, and the location of both originals and microfilm. More info:

It also should be noted that in 1922 women aged 21 years and older could become citizens regardless of marital status. Wives no longer became citizens upon husband’s naturalization. Also in that year, the residency requirement was reduced to three years.

Last, Federal Naturalizations did not start until the early 1800s. There were oaths of allegiance done in the 1700s which are recorded in the published Pennsylvania Archives. Philadelphia was the largest port in the 1700s and the Germans were coming in for land and freedom of religion, so the English had ship passengers swear oaths of allegiance to King George. If they were  British, this was not a requirement, thus their name was not recorded.

Happy searching!


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