For many years, the naturalization laws in force in the United States – up to 1922 – indicated that a non-native born woman attained citizenship when her husband did, or when she married an American citizen. Known as derivative citizenship, this process also applied to children when the father naturalized. The plot thickened in March 1907, when a new law stated that a U.S.-born woman would lose her citizenship if she married an alien; she could, however, re-attain citizenship if her husband naturalized. A more detailed study of the laws and their implications for genealogy research can be found in Marian Smith’s outstanding article in NARA’s Prologue.
Years ago, one of the first documents I discovered in my research was Leona Russell’s Oath of Allegiance, dated December 1940. Still a genealogy neophyte at the time, I remember that fact striking me as odd, since I knew that she was born in Chicago, making her a U.S. citizen – or so I thought. As my research continued, I learned more about the complex labyrinth of naturalization and citizenship law, and soon recognized that my great-grandmother fit into that fascinating category of “native-born alien.”
Born in Chicago in March 1897, Leona Hansen married Fenton Harvey Russell in October 1918. A draftsman by trade, Fenton was born in Toronto, Ontario in July 1883, and first immigrated to the United States in 1909, quickly settling in Chicago. He later filed his Declaration of Intention in the Superior Court of Cook County, Illinois in February 1919, meaning that at the time of his marriage to Leona, Fenton was still legally an alien, a non-U.S. citizen. By saying “I do,” Leona forfeited her status as an American citizen; indeed, her entry in the 1920 Census identifies her as an alien.
After several modifications to the 1907 law, Congress finally reinstated citizenship to those affected women in July 1940, although they still were required to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. This explains Leona’s 1940 oath that I found at the launch of my genealogical journey, and closes a particularly fascinating chapter in American legal and immigration history.
Ironically, Fenton became a U.S. citizen in October 1922, a few short years after his marriage to Leona. She would have to wait 18 more years.