Certificate of Naturalization # 1 and the “First Naturalized U.S. Citizen”
Several curious researchers have asked the USCIS History Office, “Who was the first naturalized U.S. citizen?”
Unfortunately, we don’t know.
But we do know who received Certificate of Naturalization #1 and we know he is not the first naturalized U.S. citizen.
There are several reasons it is nearly impossible to determine the first naturalized U.S. citizen’s identity. Chief among them is that the federal government did not begin overseeing naturalizations until September 27, 1906. Prior to that date the nation’s courts had sole control over naturalization. In practice this meant that between March 26, 1790, when congress passed the first Naturalization Act and September 26, 1906, when the federal government began collecting and filing naturalization records, thousands of individual local, state, and federal courts independently performed naturalizations. Each court had its own practices and each kept separate sets of records of varied quality and detail.
As a result, to find the first naturalized U.S. citizen, a dogged researcher would need to determine which courts performed naturalizations under the 1790 Act (there were hundreds), locate the records for each of those courts, and then search each court’s records for the earliest entries, presumably from on or shortly after March 26, 1790. Even if all of the records could be found it’s probable that several people naturalized on the same day in different courts making it impossible pick a true “first.”
If we limit our search to the first person naturalized in the era of federally-supervised naturalization—that is, limit it to “new-law” naturalizations that occurred after September 26, 1906—we can come closer to naming a first naturalized American, but it’s still difficult to be exact. Understanding why requires a little background information about the law that placed naturalization under federal control: the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906.
Congress passed the Basic Naturalization Act on June 29th, 1906. Under the Act, the nation’s courts retained their exclusive jurisdiction over naturalization. However, the Act also created a new federal Naturalization Service and placed it in charge of “all matters concerning the naturalization of aliens.” As a result, the new Naturalization Service faced the massive challenge of ensuring that thousands of independent courts across the nation each abided by a uniform set of federally-defined rules and procedures for naturalization.
To help ensure national uniformity the Basic Naturalization Act also stipulated that the new Naturalization Service would supply naturalization forms to the courts. This marked the first time that every court nationwide would use the same standardized versions of the three mandatory citizenship forms: the Declaration of Intention, the Petition for Naturalization, and the Certificate of Naturalization.
Finally, Congress set the effective date for the Basic Naturalization Act as September 27, 1906. This gave the new Naturalization Service a less-than-generous 90-day period in which to setup operations and then develop, print, and distribute the new forms to thousands of courts across the country. The Service’s official force—just four employees—completed most of the work.
The complete text of the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 and the earliest federal Naturalization Regulations, including the prescribed text for naturalization forms, were reproduced in the Naturalization Laws and Regulations of October, 1906. (PDF)
Full text versions of several editions of the Naturalization Laws and Regulations are available in the USCIS History Library Catalog.
When creating the new federally issued Certificate of Naturalization, the Naturalization Service focused on creating a secure document that would help prevent fraudulent claims to citizenship. This required using safety paper, embossed seals, and other methods to prevent forgery. It also required a means to provide blank certificates to the 3000+ courts with naturalization jurisdiction, while keeping a record of each certificate in circulation to ensure none went missing. In addition, the Naturalization Service needed to collect a duplicate copy of each certificate to retain as the federal government’s record of the naturalization.
The Basic Naturalization Act guided the Naturalization Service as it developed the means to distribute and track naturalization certificates. As the Act required, the Service bound the certificates in numbered volumes containing the original and duplicate certificates, as well as certificate “stubs.” The certificates were sequentially numbered and each set of original, duplicate, and stub was embossed with the same number. Upon naturalization, the court would provide the original certificate to the new citizen and send the duplicate copy to the Naturalization Service in Washington, DC, which would file it, creating a master-set of new-law naturalization files. The court retained the stub, which included much of the same information as the certificate, as its record of the naturalization.
In the days before the Basic Naturalization Act went into effect, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing printed the new certificates, which were then bound in volumes of 10, 25, or 50. The Service began its initial mass mailing of certificates to the courts, totaling 37,645 certificates in 2,941 volumes. Courts with little naturalization business received a volume of 10 certificates, while the largest naturalization courts received volumes of 50. Certificates from the first mailing were arranged in rough alphabetical order by state or territory, with the lowest numbers going to locations earliest in alphabetical order. The U.S. District Court at Juneau, Alaska received the volumes containing certificates #1 to #20.
The U.S.D.C. at Juneau, while not among the smallest courts with naturalization jurisdiction, conducted a relatively small number of naturalizations when compared to many courts in large east coast cities. For example, during the first nine months of Naturalization Service operations, Alaskan courts issued eight Certificates of Naturalization, while New York Courts issued 1,570. So, while Juneau received naturalization certificate #1, it was unlikely to issue the first certificate.
In fact, Juneau’s first new-law naturalization took place more than six months after the law went into effect. On April 15th, 1907, Lyman Ferris of Douglas, Alaska, a Canadian who had first entered the mainland U.S. as a young boy and gone on to serve in the U.S. Signal Corps, swore the Oath of Allegiance and Renunciation in the District Court at Juneau. Being the first citizen sworn-in at the court, he received Naturalization Certificate #1. By that time, however, hundreds of certificates had already been issued by other courts across the U.S.
Like many of the records for people who naturalized just after September of 1906, Ferris’s Naturalization Certificate File (C-file #1) includes just two documents: the Petition for Naturalization and the Certificate of Naturalization. In Lyman’s Case, the Declaration of Intention is missing because his status as an honorably discharged veteran exempted him from filing it. In other early examples, individuals who had filed a Declaration of Intention prior to September 27, 1906 were not required to file a declaration on the new standardized federal form. As a result, no triplicate copies of the declarations exist in early Naturalization Service Certificate Files (C-files).
Unfortunately, today it is difficult to get a legible copy of Certificate of Naturalization #1. During the late 1940s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began a microfilming program to save on the space and money required for record storage. The INS began with passenger manifests and soon moved to Naturalization Certificate Files. Once microfilmed, the original Certificates were destroyed. The surviving images show that many of the earliest certificates had already suffered damage at the time of filming, but subsequent microfilm degradation has made the images even more difficult to read.
If Mr. Ferris was not the first person naturalized under the new federal naturalization service, who was? Given that the naturalization could have taken place in any of the 3000+ courts with jurisdiction to naturalize aliens in 1906, it would take considerable research to make definite conclusion. Using the available evidence and some logical assumptions, however, we can name a likely candidate.
The Basic Naturalization Act required naturalizing immigrants who could not be sworn-in by September 26, 1906 to submit a new petition on Naturalization Service’s federally-created standard form. The law also required that petitioners’ names be posted at the court for 90 days prior to the final hearing. Thus, it is unlikely that anybody naturalized between September 27, 1906 and December 26, 1906. It’s also likely that the earliest new-law naturalization took place in a larger city where more people naturalized. A survey of records from the country’s largest naturalization courts reveals that earliest naturalizations under the new law may have taken place at the U.S. District Court in Boston on December 31, 1906.
On that date, Samuel Stork, a belt-maker from England, swore the oath of renunciation and allegiance and received what may have been the first certificate issued under the new law. He had submitted his Petition on the first day possible—September 27th—and became a citizen just over 90 days later. His certificate, the first issued to the U.S.D.C. in Boston, bears the seemingly unremarkable number “5841.”
Since candidates who filed petitions on September 27th, 1906 would have become eligible to naturalize on December 26, 1906, it is possible that a smaller court somewhere issued a new-law certificate earlier than those issued in Boston on New Year’s Eve. The History Office welcomes submissions from researchers who believe they have located an earlier new-law Naturalization.
Lyman Ferris, holder of Certificate of Naturalization #1, appears to have prospered as a U.S. citizen. When he submitted his Petition for Naturalization in 1906 he listed his occupation as “hotel clerk.” Fourteen years later, in a 1920 letter to the Immigrant Inspector In Charge at Ketchikan, Alaska, he introduced himself as the new owner of the Steadman Hotel and announced his intent to raise the rent on the three rooms the Immigration Service had leased for office space. Negotiating the $15 per month increase, Ferris claimed, “our quarters and services are the best in town.” Records indicate that Ferris served as the Steadman Hotel’s Proprietor for several decades.
Lyman’s 1920 letter is found in the Immigration Policy Correspondence of the INS, 1906-1957, Entry 9 of Record Group 85, Records of INS at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The correspondence files in Entry 9 document all aspects of the Immigration Services early operations. To learn more, see our Research Guide.