When the United States began, not everyone was a citizen. At first, only free white men were citizens. American Indians were not seen as citizens. During the 1800s, more and more immigrants came into the United States. The government had to change its laws. It set up a way for people to become citizens. It is called naturalization. First, immigrants have to say they want to be citizens. Then they study our history and our laws. They must pass a test. They promise loyalty to the United States in front of witnesses. Then the government gives them papers that say they are citizens. In the 1880s, these were called naturalization papers. You can see one in the picture.

Naturalization Paper
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society


     The laws about citizens kept changing. African Americans became citizens after the Civil War. In 1888, American Indian women married to white American men were citizens. They could not yet vote. By 1890, American Indian men who owned land and paid taxes could vote. Then in 1919, American Indian men who served in World War I were given citizenship. A year later, women were given the vote. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act gave citizenship to all American Indians in the United States. This meant that everyone—men, women, and children—could vote when they became twenty-one.

     Today people born in the United States are automatically American citizens. People from different countries that come to live here are not. They must live in the country for five years. Then they can follow the steps to become citizens.