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Filing for U.S. citizenship is a voluntary act. However, as it was necessary to be a citizen in order to file for land under the Homestead Act, so naturalization records became a very important part of the history of those settling the Midwest.

The first laws governing naturalization were passed by Congress in 1790, and though many rules changed over the years, some stayed the same.

Typically, the naturalization process required two papers to be filed and took five years to complete, at a minimum. Those seeking the process had to live in the US for two years. They then filed a declaration of intent, or "first papers," and eventually a petition for naturalization or "second papers" after three years. Information included on these two records varied over time, but in the end, the paperwork granted the individuals citizenship.

There were a few exceptions. For a time, minors who had lived in the US for five years before their 23rd birthday could file both papers simultaneously. And, through 1922, married women were granted citizenship through their husbands' naturalization. Until 1940, children under the age of 21 were naturalized through their father. Special legislation was also granted at various times to veterans.

Different areas also had different rules on naturalization, which led to dissimilar forms and recorded information.

In 1903, a Justice Department investigator commented on the state of these naturalization records, saying: "I find the naturalization records in many cases in a chaotic condition, many lost and destroyed, and some sold for old paper." A 1905 report to the president of the Commission on Naturalization commented that "methods of making and keeping the naturalization records in both the Federal and State courts are as various as the procedure in such cases."

And on this date in 1922, people were discussing recent events, as reported by the Benson County Farmers Press, in which one man was denied application for naturalization at Minnewaukan because he did not subscribe to a newspaper!

The judge told him that he should get a county newspaper of any political persuasion, as he "must take a newspaper, and know a little of what is going on in this country."

The newspaper reported, "Citizenship in the United States means something more than holding up one's good right arm and swearing that he will ‘be good.’"

Dakota Datebook written by Sarah Walker



Benson County Farmers Press, June 9, 1922