Brave new world

Brave new world

Did your ancestors emigrate to North America? You can find out whether they became US citizens and learn fascinating details of their lives. Main text by Linda Jonas

Header Image: The Declaration of Independence, 1776

Linda Jonas, author  and President of the British Isles Family History Society - U.S.A.

Linda Jonas

author and President of the British Isles Family History Society - U.S.A.

Your emigrant ancestors never led normal lives. These are people who did something extraordinary: they left their homes, possessions, families, friends, and homeland forever to try to find a better life. Some of your ancestors left for religious reasons, such as the Puritans who came to New England from 1629-1640. Most came for economic reasons, such as the Irish immigrants who left their homelands after the potato famines (about 1846-1851). Sometimes there were both religious and economic motives. But all of them left the only life they had known and went to North America with hope for a brighter future.

Early American scene
Early American scene

Some of them did not go by choice. English prisons were cleared and convicts shipped to the American colonies. Women and children were kidnapped from the countryside and off the streets of cities such as London and Edinburgh to provide much needed colonial labourers. When they arrived, your ancestors did not find the American streets to be paved with gold. But whether they came to the wilderness or to a large city already settled with people they knew from their homeland, they were pioneers.

Why did your ancestor leave the British Isles? Where did they live and how was their life there? What did they take with them, and what did they leave behind? What was their first impression of their new land? Were they indentured, and if so, how did they feel about their master? Did they find a better life? Did they ever return to Britain?

These details of your ancestors’ lives do not fit on a pedigree chart or family group sheet. They had more than three events – birth, marriage, and death – in their lives. But there are documents available in archives and online that will allow you to retrace your ancestors’ steps and reconstruct their stories.

British Colonies 1772-1776
British Colonies 1772-1776

Naturalisation records are some of the most genealogically valuable records of all. This is when your ancestor decided to make the official break with their homeland and to adopt this new country as his own. They usually had been in the United States for five years or more when they took out their final papers. At that time they brought witnesses with them. These people were not like witnesses to a marriage; they had to have known your ancestor for a long time and be able to testify to their moral character. They were almost always close friends or relatives. Locating all of the documents involved in the naturalisation process can be difficult, but it is well worth the effort. Even when they don’t tell you the specific information you are seeking, they will usually provide clues to other documents.

Beaver 26 inches longMarriage traditions

During the colonial period, there were no citizens of the United States because there was no such country! In order to have all the rights and privileges of a British subject, one had to become a subject of the British monarch. Therefore, because most of the colonial immigrants were from Britain and were already British subjects, they will not be found in US naturalisation records. However, some immigrants had previously emigrated to the British Isles from other European countries and were naturalised there before coming to the American colonies.

According to English law, an alien could neither hold nor inherit real property, nor pass it to his heirs. If he acquired property it passed to the Crown upon his death. Colonial naturalization law was made by Parliament in Britain. Colonies were not allowed to decide naturalisation procedures for themselves.

If your ancestor emigrated to England from another country, they may have obtained a letter of denization from the Crown or received naturalisation from Parliament before proceeding to the colonies. The terms ‘denization’ and ‘naturalisation’ were originally synonymous. Eventually, the term ‘denization’ applied to naturalisations granted by the Crown.

Canadian Illustrated News

The King could choose to include or exclude any rights or privileges whatsoever from the Letter of Denization. One of the most common restrictions in a Letter of Denization is that the subject would have all rights of a natural-born Englishman, but would pay double taxes as an alien. ‘Naturalization’ was the term used for naturalization granted by acts of Parliament. Parliament did not have the unrestricted power of the Crown, and therefore naturalisations granted all rights of a natural-born Englishman to the immigrant without restrictions. Naturalisation by Parliament was expensive and difficult to acquire. Most immigrants received a Letter of Denization.

An immigrant coming directly to the colonies could have become naturalised by an act of the colonial governor acting in place of the monarch, or by act of the colonial legislature. However, the colonial naturalizations prior to 1740 were strictly local in nature and the rights obtained did not extend to other colonies nor to the British Isles. If your ancestor moved to another colony, he would have to also become naturalised there. If the immigrant had obtained his naturalisation in England, however, it extended to all of the colonies.

Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska
Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska by C.C.A. Christensen

After 1740, the procedure changed. The Act for Naturalising such foreign Protestants, and others therein mentioned, as are settled or shall settle in any of His Majesty’s Colonies in America allowed an immigrant who had lived seven years in a colony to become naturalised by fulfilling certain requirements (such as taking the oaths and producing a certificate that he had taken the Sacrament) in the colony of residence. The payment was two shillings.

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During the Revolutionary War, many people took oaths renouncing their allegiance to King George III and swearing allegiance to the state in which they were living. Individual states could authorise their legislatures to naturalise during this period. The first federal naturalisation law was the 1790 Act of Congress. The requirements for naturalisation included a two-year residency in the United States, one year in the state where naturalised, and an oath to support the Constitution. The law changed several times in the years that followed, and after 1802 settled at one year residence in a state and five years in the United States. A Declaration of Intention was to be filed three years prior to admission as a citizen. This act formed the basic law until 1906.

Mayflower in Portsmouth Harbour
Mayflower in Portsmouth Harbour

The important thing to remember is that naturalization in the United States was a process involving several documents over a period of time. Before 1906, when the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was created, naturalisation could have occurred in any common law court of record.

If your immigrant came to the US between 1798 and 1828, you should check the records of the courts at the port of arrival as well as the courts surrounding the one where the Declaration of Intention was filed. The Report and Registry required the name, birthplace, age, nation and allegiance of each alien, together with the country whence he or she migrated, and the place of his or her intended settlement. Many of the Report and Registry documents have been transferred to regional branches of the US National Archives.

Declaration of Intention ‘First Papers’ from 1795 onwards are usually the documents that contain the most information about your ancestor. They may tell you the name, date of birth, birthplace, date and port of emigration, date and port of arrival, name of spouse, marriage date and place, names and dates of birth of children, physical description, place of residence, and many other items of information – the more recent the document, the more detailed it will be.

After 1906, the immigrant had to have a certificate that showed the name of the ship on which he arrived and the date of arrival. Passenger lists were not required by Federal Law until 1820. The majority of passenger lists are extant for the time period from 1820 to about 1940, and most are available online at .

Depending on the time period, US passenger lists can provide a wealth of information, such as the name of each person on the ship, age, relationship to the head of the family, occupation, and country of origin. Later lists will give the precise place of birth, a physical description, and many other significant details. There were five major ports of entry into the United States: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans. New York was the number one port.

These extracts are reprinted with thanks from an article by Linda Jonas for the British Isles Family History Society USA, which helps people in the USA trace their British ancestors.

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Timeline: Early American history

Walter Raleigh receives the patent to explore and settle in North America, and establishes the Virginia colony of Roanoke Island
Captain John Smith explorer and founder of Jamestown
Henry Hudson explores North eastern North America including the Hudson River
The Proclamation of 1763 issued by King George III to organize the new North American empire – no British settlements allowed west of the Appalachian mountains
Merchants in Boston and New York boycott British goods
The Boston Tea Party – Massachusetts patriots dressed as Mohawk Indians protest against the British Tea Act by dumping crates of tea into Boston Harbor
Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms stating that Americans are resolved to die free men rather than live as slaves
Thomas Jefferson presents the United States Declaration of Independence
The British army surrenders at Yorktown
First President of the US is George Washington
US slave trade with Africa ends

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