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Research Aid: Naturalization Records

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, state circuit courts usually administered the naturalization process established by federal law. In Milwaukee the municipal court also handled naturalization cases. During this time period, most applicants for naturalization were men. From 1855 until the Married Woman’s Act of 1922, citizenship was automatically conferred on the wife of any male citizen. Since 1922, women have been required to obtain their own citizenship. Minor children automatically became citizens when their fathers received citizenship.

Three common types of records document the naturalization process: declarations of intent, petitions, and naturalization certificates.

Researchers should note that about 25 percent of aliens never became citizens or made only a declaration to become a citizen. Many people filed only a declaration of intent, because, according to the Wisconsin constitution, it was all they needed in order to vote. Also, the extent and type of information contained in naturalization records changes over time. Recent records are much more detailed.

Declarations of Intent

Initially an alien resident filed a declaration of intention, also commonly known as “first papers” with an authorized court, indicating their intention to become a citizen, to renounce all allegiance to any foreign state, and to renounce any foreign title or order of nobility. At least two years after making the declaration (after 1906, no more than seven years later), an alien who had been a resident of the United States for at least five years could petition the court for admission to citizenship.

The names of the applicant and the foreign ruler whose allegiance was renounced and the date are always shown on the declaration. Later declarations also include some or all of the following information: age or birth date; place of birth; date and place of entry into the U.S.; applicant’s oath; and affidavits of two witnesses who attested to the applicant’s residency and good character.


Petitions, which were often called “petitions and oaths,” “petitions and records,” or “second papers,” documented the second step in the naturalization process. After serving the required period of residency, the applicant petitioned the court for admission to citizenship. The court then issued a naturalization certificate.

The petition consisted of the applicant’s petition to the court, an oath of allegiance, and affidavits of two witnesses attesting to the petitioner’s good character and residency. The petition may also include the order of the court admitting the applicant to citizenship, especially for records filed after 1902. The exact content of petitions filed before September 1906 depended on the record-keeping at the court and on local custom. The courts always recorded the name and oath of the petitioner, petition date, names of witnesses, and sovereignty renounced. Petitions also typically included some or all of the following information: age or birth date, date and place of entry into the U.S., and date and place where the declaration of intent was filed.

After 1906 the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) adopted new petition forms for general use. The new forms contained the following information: petitioner’s name; residence; occupation; date and place of birth; date and place of emigration; date, place, and vessel or other conveyance into the U.S.; period of residency; place, date, and name of court where the declaration of intent was made; marital status; spouse’s name, birth date, and place of residency; and names, dates and places of birth, and residency of the petitioner’s children.

Additional data was added to the petition forms after 1906. In 1910 the court order was altered to show denials of admission or continuations granted in the proceedings. The size of the form was greatly reduced in 1929, though the information remained the same, except that the place and date of the applicant’s marriage was added, and the court order section was deleted and transferred to another document. The witnesses’ affidavits listed their names, occupations, and places of residence. The court order showed the petitioner’s name and the date of admission to citizenship. At the time of naturalization, petitioners were allowed to change their name, which was documented in the court order. A copy of the declaration of intent and a certificate of arrival often were attached to the petition.

Naturalization Certificates

Naturalization certificates, often called “third papers,” were issued to newly naturalized citizens as evidence of their status. Prior to 1907, standardized forms were not used, and few courts retained copies of the certificates. Copies that have survived were preprinted forms in bound volumes. Typically, they repeated most of the information found in the petition. After September 1906, the INS issued serially numbered, two-part certificates. One copy went to the new citizen, and the second to the INS. The local courts only retained the certificate stub books from which the forms were separated. The stub books record the new citizen’s name; date; name of issuing court; declaration number; volume and petition number; court order date; and the names, ages, and places of residency of the spouse and minor children.

Naturalization Record Locations

Milwaukee County naturalization records are located at the Milwaukee County Historical Society while the Ozaukee County naturalization records (1850-1906), Sheboygan County naturalization records (1851-1982), Washington County naturalization records (1845-1963) and Waukesha County naturalization records, (1847-1955) are located in the UWM Golda Meir Library’s Archives Department.

Some naturalization records for Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Sheboygan, Washington, and Waukesha Counties are also available online through FamilySearch. With FamilySearch, you may be prompted to sign in before you are able to view the available records. If you do not have a FamilySearch account, you can register for free.

Federal and Wisconsin Territory records are located at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration facility in Chicago.