Becoming American: A Look at the Process

The National Archives’ Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service—which many genealogists informally call “Record Group 85”—is one of the best sources of data on immigrants to America, covering the years 1787 to 1993. It’s a common misperception that Record Group 85 contains only passenger lists, which are now viewable online through many sites. However, this record group contains hundreds of case files of immigrants either trying to come into the United States or trying to stay in the country. Also hiding in this series are documents that introduce us to what immigrants were expected to learn about their adopted country in different periods.

Record Group 85 contains a group of books that were published to assist immigrants in the process known as naturalization, known as Entry 34. The books were used in classes—many held in public schools—that introduced the immigrants to the history and government of their newly adopted country. Many booklets offered chapters devoted to highlights of American history, including important figures such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. These texts, published in the 1910s to the 1950s, also included details on the various branches of the government, information about the flag and the national anthem, and even some basics on learning English. One textbook reproduced the blank forms the immigrants would encounter as they began the three-step process to ultimately becoming an American.

Among all the things that one would expect to find in such textbooks, though, were chapters that a researcher would be surprised to find on housecleaning and proper nutrition for a family. This section of one student’s textbook was titled “Fundamentals for the American Home; Some Things the Housewife Should Know.”

In the opening paragraphs, it states, to the housewife, “In order to keep herself and her family happy, she must not waste any steps or energy. She should plan to save her strength and energy by having things at hand—a place for everything and everything in its place.”

Pages from a textbook to assist immigrants, offering guidelines for what children should eat.
Pages from a textbook to assist immigrants, offering guidelines for what children should eat.

The topics covered in this “home fundamentals” section included diets for children based on age—offering what the child should eat at each meal. There was a great deal of text devoted to the cleanliness of the house and the family. Some of the more common ailments such as cuts and bruises were addressed, including what to do for certain poisons. And the immigrant housewife was even told how best to dress her family, while not attracting attention to herself in her style of dress.

These records are not available online, and in many instances your ancestors are likely not indexed by name in the one available subject index that is available on microfilm (microfilm publication T458) and has been digitized on Ancestry.com. You must search them in person at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

While it is tempting to rush through naturalization records, especially if you have found the naturalization of your immigrant ancestor, take the time to look at some of the other material that is found in Record 85. Even if your immigrant is not mentioned by name in these records, you’ll get a glimpse into the America he or she was embracing.

About Rhonda McClure

Rhonda R. McClure, Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer specializing in New England and celebrity research as well as computerized genealogy; is compiler of more than 120 celebrity family trees; has been a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine, Biography magazine and was a contributor to The History Channel Magazine and American History Magazine. In addition to numerous articles, she is the author of ten books, including the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition, Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors, and Digitizing Your Family History.

6 thoughts on “Becoming American: A Look at the Process

  1. I am seeking information about the arrival of my paternal grandfather, Moshe Tekotsky/Morris Teck into the U.S. I have his petition for Naturalization with much information. However, I do not the Manifest of the ship (Graf Waldersee) on which he arrived or any confirmation of the date, June 27, 1901. Can you help me? Thanks.

    1. Myrna–The petition for naturalization usually said where he arrived. If you’re a NEHGS member, try putting his name, and nothing else, into the search box and see what comes up. Try both names, first one and then the other. You might even try all four possibilities, because you probably don’t know when or where he made the change. If that doesn’t work for you, and you think he came through NYC, have you looked at the Ellis Island website? Try both names, leaving off the date, and using the date both. If you still haven’t found him and you have a subscription to Ancestry.com or access to HeritageQuest, a free site, through your public library, give those a try. I’ve found that up to a point, entering the least amount of information possible, especially on an uncommon name like this, is the most likely to find the person you’re looking for. Good luck. Doris

      1. I found that my great grandfather’s naturalization papers, including his “Declaration of Naturalization,” were only at the County Clerk’s Office where he resided. They were not to be found anywhere in the National or State Archives (“Records of naturalizations performed in all state courts are filed in the county clerk’s office in the county where the court was located.” So you might have luck at the Clerk’s office where you think he might have filed his papers. However, I have not been able to find the papers for his father although I looked high and low for those as well.

        Note: The first time I went to the Clerk’s office, I was told there were no records. However, after not finding them anywhere, I went back again and they were located. In this case, having a different person do the searching made the difference. Sometimes the old adage, if you try and fail, try, try again might work.

        1. Thanks, Elizabeth–good suggestions. I do now have my grandfather’s Naturalization info, but nothing to confirm his date/place of arrival–beyond the info listed on his Naturalization. I’ll keep trying.

          Thanks again.
          Myrna

      2. Thanks, Doris. The petition for naturalization does, indeed have the place (NYC) and date (1901) that he arrived. However, although I know that the name was changed from Tekotsky/Tekotzki to Teck in 1915 (thanks to an uncle who wanted the name to sound less
        ‘ethnic’ so he could get it to Cooper Union–which he did!), I am unable to find anything at Ellis Island. I am a member of Ancestry.com and was unsuccessful through them as well. A genealogy librarian suggested that I check with the Archives in downtown Washington, DC. I haven’t done that yet. Do you–or anyone else–have any experience with the Archives? I was told that they have all arrivals on microfiche.

        Thanks for your good suggestions, Doris.

        Myrna

  2. That is a wonderful and interesting article. Some of the advice on diet could even be applicable today — “Cereals, sugar, milk, butters and any fats, make you fat.” and “let your variety come over different days.” Thank you.

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