On November 3, a naturalization ceremony will be held at the Library of Virginia. A group of people from various nations will take an oath declaring their allegiance to the United States. The coming ceremony prompted me to investigate the extent of naturalization records in the Local Records collection. We have naturalization records for approximately 30 localities. You would expect to find naturalization records in some localities such as Newport News, Portsmouth, and Norfolk County because of their location along the coast. However, LVA has naturalization records for western localities as well including Roanoke County, Russell County, and Rockingham County. The bulk of the records are dated before 1906. The reason being that prior to 1906, the naturalization process was the responsibility of local and state courts.
The predominant documents found in the naturalization records are the declarations of intent. An immigrant seeking U.S. citizenship would first file this document in which the applicant declared his or her intent to become a citizen and renounced allegiance to a foreign government. Information found in the declaration included name of applicant, place of birth, date of birth, age, and name of the ruler to which he or she renounced allegiance. A person could declare intent to become a citizen at any time and in any place after arriving in the United States. After three additional years, a person could apply to become a citizen. These two steps did not have to take place in the same court, which is why one will find in the naturalization records collection declarations of intent from other states such as Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
The collection also includes reports for naturalization filed in the local courts. They were similar to declarations of intent in that the applicant made known his or her intent to become a citizen of the United States. However, the reports were commonly written in a narrative style as opposed to a standard form and therefore contain more detailed information regarding the applicant’s journey to citizenship. In his report to the Norfolk County Court filed in 1835, Samuel Ghio of Sardinia explains that he came to Virginia in 1825 after his ship, the brig Betsey, sank near Cape Henry. William Adams of Great Britain references his service in the Civil War as part of his report filed in Norfolk County Court in 1885. Adams wrote that he arrived in the United States in October 1864 and in the same month was mustered into the “Maine Volunteers.” He was honorably discharged on 15 June 1865. There are many more stories of immigrants’ quests for citizenship found in the naturalization records at the Library of Virginia, stories to which those who are becoming citizens of the United States tomorrow probably can relate.
-Greg Crawford, Local Records Coordinator