Researching Philadelphia Records

Other than the important vital records, such as birth, death and marriage records of the Board of Health, the record series most heavily used by genealogists which are held by the City Archives are the various naturalizations found among the papers of the Common Pleas Court, the Philadelphia County District Court and the Court of Quarter Sessions.

As a word of warning, however, do not expect that the naturalization records will provide the genealogist with all of the biographical information which she or he is seeking. The various courts in Philadelphia, once freed from the restraints imposed upon them under the original Naturalization Acts of Congress, slowly slipped into a standard form for both the declaration and intention which provides the genealogist with clues, but not actual data regarding the date of birth of the applicant, port and year of entry, or names of the members of the family who either accompanied him at the time of his arrival or who composed the family at the time of his naturalization. Many of these categories were incorporated into the standard Bureau of Labor Naturalization form required of all courts starting in 1906.

Secondly, few women appear in the naturalization records prior to 22 September 1922, after they had achieved the right to vote. Of the over 200,000 naturalizations contained in the files at the Philadelphia City Archives, possibly fifty involve the naturalization of a woman prior to 1922.

No less than eleven separate courts in Philadelphia existed which conducted naturalization proceedings after 1790. These are, with the dates which they conducted naturalization proceedings:

United States Circuit Court (federal) 1790-present
United States District Court (federal)1790-present
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (state) 1794-1824, 1843-1868
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court (county) 1793-1906
Philadelphia District Court (county) 1811-1874
Philadelphia Court of Quarter Sessions (county) 1802-1897,1914-1930
Philadelphia Court of Criminal Sessions (county) 1838-1840
Philadelphia Court of General Sessions (county) 1840-1843
Orphan's Court of Philadelphia (county) ca. 1809
Mayor's Court of Philadelphia (city) 1814-1838
Recorder's Court of Northern Liberties & Kensington (local) 1836-1838

The Philadelphia City Archives has the records of the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, County District Court, Quarter Sessions Court, Criminal Sessions Court, General Sessions Court, Mayor's Court and the Recorder's Court. Whatever naturalizations were conducted by the Orphan's Court have not survived. For further information about naturalizations held by the Philadelphia City Archives and the procedures to obtain copies, please click here.

For information relating to the United States Circuit and District Courts, contact the National Archives & Records Administration - Mid-Atlantic Regional Branch, 9th & Market Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107 (215-597-3000).

For information about the records of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Eastern Division, contact the Pennsylvania State Archives, 308 North Street, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17120-0090 (717-787-2701) or visit their web page.

According to the federal naturalization laws, any court of record within the United States had the power to conduct naturalization proceedings. These proceedings usually involved two steps. A man, (or, very rarely, a woman,) visited the court to swear or affirm his intention to renounce his allegiance to his native country and monarch. This was known as the Declaration of Intention. After a waiting period of three years, later reduced to two years, he could enter any court in the country, produce a copy of the declaration, prove that he had resided in the United States for a period of not less than five years, have a person vouch for his character, and present a petition for full citizenship. This paper is known as the Naturalization Petition. If he fulfilled all of these obligations, the court would issue a certificate of citizenship and would retain, as part of its records, the applicant's copy of the declaration and the petition for naturalization. The court would not retain a copy of the actual Certificate of Citizenship. This belonged to the newly enfranchised citizen.


The first document of the citizenship/naturalization process is known as the Declaration of Intention. When first developed in Philadelphia, this document would provide much information helpful for genealogical pursuits. Generally, the information contained within the Declaration had the date of the declaration, name, birthplace, birthdate, and approximate age of the declarant, nativity, name of the monarch, port of embarkation, port and date of arrival, and declarant's signature or mark.

Between 1828 and 1838, the various courts abandoned this form in lieu of a shorter form which has only the date of the declaration, name and approximate age of the declarant, nativity, name of monarch, and declarant's signature or mark. There is no other information contained on the declarations filed in the Philadelphia county courts until 1906.

The declarations starting in 1906 contain the following information: name; occupation; age; description, including color, complexion, height, weight, hair color, eye color, other marks; birthplace; birthdate; place of residence; port and vessel of embarkation; foreign residence; name of monarch; port and date of arrival; signature or mark of declarant; and date of declaration. There is no other information contained on the declarations filed in the Philadelphia county courts until 1906.


All persons who wanted to initiate naturalization proceedings in the 19th century had to file a declaration, with two major exceptions:


Those people who arrived in the United States under the age of 18 had only to wait the five-year residency requirement and achieve their majority before filing a petition to become a citizen. The law waived the necessity of minors having to file a declaration of intention. However, before 1850, both the Quarter Sessions Court and the Common Pleas Court would often have an applicant sign the declaration docket as well as a minor's petition in order to have some proof of the applicant's age and signature.


Under an Act of 17 July 1862, persons serving in the United States armies (the Union forces during the Civil War), only had to present their honorable discharge and reside in the country for a period of only one year, not five, in order to file for naturalization. This law was intended only for army veterans - navy and marine veterans were not covered under this law, but under a similar law passed on 26 July 1894. However, the Philadelphia courts were apt to wink at this restriction and numerous veterans of the naval, marine and other services used their service discharges to become citizens under the 1862 law.


The petition for naturalization, important as proof of your ancestor's successful bid to become a citizen of the United States, contains no genealogical information before 1906. It will state the date and court before which the applicant made his declaration, the applicant's desire to become a citizen, a voucher from an existing citizen as to the applicant's moral character, date of the petition, and the applicant's signature or mark.

Minor's petitions will provide the year and port through which the applicant arrived. Before 1850, in the Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions Courts, one will usually find a declaration for the minor filed on the same day within the declaration records of the respective courts.

Military petitions will provide the name of the company and regiment, length of service, and date of honorable discharge.

After 1906, the petition for naturalization provides the following information: name; address; occupation; birthdate; birthplace; emigration date and port; port and date of arrival; date and court of declaration; name, age and birthplace of wife, if any; name, birthdates and birthplaces of children, if any; affidavits of petitioner and witnesses; oath of allegiance; order of court admitting petitioner; and number and date of certificate of naturalization.

At no time in American history did a person have to return to the same court in which he filed his declaration of intent in order to file his petition for naturalization. One will find in the petition files of the various courts declarations taken before courts from Maine to California.


During the 19th century, the only reason for an alien to become a citizen was in order to achieve the right to vote. He (or she) did not need to become a citizen in order to buy or sell property, hold a job, get married, or to do anything of a personal or social nature. Many aliens lived most of their lives in this country and never began and/or completed the process of naturalization. This connection between naturalization and the franchise explains why the majority of naturalizations occur during Presidential-election years. During any year, the majority of petitions are filed in the weeks just before the primary or general election. It also explains why very few women bothered to become citizens on their own.



A person had to reside in the United States for at least five years before filing for his final petition for naturalization. Generally, he also had to reside in the State of Pennsylvania for one year before this action.

During the 19th century, no maximum time period existed for the filing of naturalization petitions. Nor did anyone have to become naturalized in order to own property, hold a job, or any thing else that he wanted to do, except vote. Cases exist in which a person might have arrived before 1800 but not filed for naturalization until after 1850. The provision that a person had to be naturalized before casting a vote accounts for the fact that the peak years for naturalization are those of presidential campaigns.

As noted above, military service was taken in lieu of both a declaration of intention and four of the five years of residency.


A person had to wait a minimum of two years between the action of declaring his intent to become a citizen and actually filing his final petition for naturalization. Before 1828, this period of waiting was three years.

Again, the only exception that the Archives staff has noticed occurs when a person has signed the declaration document and proven that he arrived as a minor which allows him to file his final petition on the same day.


The tricky part of using the naturalizations is understanding how the little data which is given on the form can be used to determine information about your forebear. To do this, one should always remember the rules stated above. One can sometimes estimate an approximate date of arrival by realising that a person had to be 18 before he was required to file a declaration, (otherwise he would file a "minor's" petition) and that at least five years had to pass between arrival and petition.

To give a random example. Henry Axt filed his declaration of intention in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on 1 April 1856 and his final petition in the Philadelphia County District Court on 16 April 1860. He stated that he was 23 years old on his declaration of intention. This would put his birthdate approximately 1832 or 1833. His 18th birthdate would probably have occurred in either 1850 or 1851. Since he filed his petition in 1860, he could not have arrived after 1855. Therefore, his probable arrival date would be 1851-1855.

Another example is that of Ernst Albert, who stated that he was 21 at the time of his declaration on 1 January 1856. He filed a petition on 18 April 1860. Again, using the same formula, we assume that his birthdate falls in 1834, and using the 5-year rule, could not have arrived after 1855. Therefore, he arrived in the United States between 1852 and 1855.

Determining the port of arrival, if it is not mentioned on the declaration or petition, requires searching through the ship passenger lists of each port. Using the formula above will cut the amount of time and records which will have to be searched. A survey of 15,394 naturalizations filed in the Common Pleas and District Courts from 1850-1857 revealed that 33.8% of the petitions had the port and/or the date of immigration. New York had the highest number of arrivals with 48%, followed by Philadelphia with 45%. The next four, in order of incidence, were Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, and Wilmington, Delaware. [Three people reported that they entered the United States through Quebec, and one person through St. Louis, Missouri.]

One word of warning: Since the naturalization process during the 19th century was closely related to the politics of the various elections, many abuses occurred. This is especially true during the Presidential Election of 1840 in which many declarations were backdated, declarations were voided but used anyway for petitions, and duplicate declarations issued for persons claiming to have lost their copies, yet the actual declaration appeared for the true claimant in another year. Abuses also appeared in smaller scales during other presidential election years.

Some final notes:

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (I. & N.S.), Washington, D.C. 20536, has duplicate records of all naturalizations that occurred after 27 September 1906. Inquiries about citizenship granted after that date should be sent on Form G-639. Contact the I. & N.S., 26 Federal Plaza, New York, N. Y. 10278 or your local Immigration Office for a copy of this form.

The 1900 United States Census has three codes in its naturalization column. NA means that the person has been naturalized (again, women were not naturalized but could be considered naturalized if their husband was); AL means that the person is still an alien and has not begun the naturalization process. PA stands for Papers Applied for, not Pennsylvania, which means that the person has started the naturalization process by filing a declaration of intention but has not completed it at the time of the census visit. Contact the local county court for naturalization records as an alien could apply for naturalization in ANY court: city, county, state or federal.

For further reading about the naturalization laws and processes, see
Newman, John J., American Naturalization Processes and Procedures, 1790-1985, Indiana Historical Society, 1985
Schaefer, Christina K., A Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States, Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997

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Last updated on 16 November 2000.