Prologue Magazine

The Creation and Destruction of Ellis Island Immigration Manifests: Part 2

Winter 1996, Vol. 28, No. 4 | Genealogy Notes

By Marian L. Smith


During World War II, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched a microfilm project to preserve the agency's immigrant arrival records (see Fall 1996 Prologue). Top INS officials then announced a plan to save space and reduce costs by destroying the original paper manifests. For the next three and a half years, managers at INS Central Office in Washington, D.C., and at the INS District Office in New York debated the decision to destroy original records. In addition to explaining why no paper immigration manifests survive, this episode reminds us of the bureaucratic difficulties involved in implementing new national policy, the ability of resourceful field officers to resist that policy, and how unexpected, disinterested outsiders (in this case, the Atomic Energy Commission) can influence the course of events.


Joseph Savoretti, deputy commissioner of immigration and naturalization, began the effort to dispose of original manifests in May 1944 with a memorandum to Commissioner Earl G. Harrison. Savoretti explained that, under the law, microfilm had the same force as original records, and under those circumstances, he saw no reason to retain the manifests and index books occupying "practically an entire floor" of the INS building in New York City. Savoretti recommended destruction of the old records and of all new manifests when they were microfilmed. He even attached a National Archives approval form for Commissioner Harrison to sign. Apparently in no mood to be rash, Harrison responded by asking that the whole proposal be cleared through INS Administrative Services and the National Archives.1

Savoretti enlisted the help of INS Director of Administrative Services Perry M. Oliver, who then asked New York District Director W. Frank Watkins for any "good reason" not to carry out the planned destruction of the passenger lists. The question clearly took Watkins by surprise. He reminded Oliver that in all previous discussions of the microfilming project, intended as a preservation project, there was no indication that the originals would be destroyed. Furthermore, the district director thought records personnel in New York needed more experience with the microfilm before they could determine if the originals were now unnecessary. As to the need for space, Watkins said there was no pressing need for the room now occupied by manifests and saw no reason to destroy them. "The original records," he concluded, "are irreplaceable and their hasty destruction would be most unfortunate, in my opinion." For the moment, Watkins's argument prevailed. Oliver decided to take no action unless a need arose for additional space at the New York District Office.3

Meanwhile, Joseph Savoretti, who was by this time acting commissioner of immigration and naturalization, tried again to get District Director Watkins to support destruction of the manifests. Savoretti said one of the reasons for microfilming was the ability to dispose of the original manifests. He acknowledged that Watkins might have space to store the records but thought the INS would be "justifiably criticized" for retaining originals after spending public funds for their preservation on microfilm.4

After meeting with Perry Oliver in early October, Watkins sent another memorandum to Savoretti explaining why he still thought it wrong to destroy the original manifests. He was not yet convinced that the INS would not need the records in verification or some other sort of work. "Microfilms at the best are merely copies of original documents," Watkins concluded, and he was of "the firm opinion that the records themselves, accumulated over long years of operation, should be preserved until no question remains as to whether it is desirable to retain or to destroy them."5

There was perhaps another reason why Watkins did not wish to rely upon microfilm copies, though he did not mention it in his correspondence. During July 1943, when the first reels of microfilm had just come into use in New York City, clerks opened the windows to provide relief from the heat of the reader machines. By August the microfilm operation experienced problems caused by "the excessive amount of dust and cinders . . . settling on these machines from the open windows." Dirt particles found their way into the readers, leaving the film "very dirty and badly scratched from just normal use." The INS prevented further harm to the microfilm by isolating and air-conditioning the microfilm room, but the fact that the film had been damaged by unforeseen circumstances may have caused Watkins to doubt the permanency of such records.6

Back at the Central Office in Washington, Savoretti and Oliver continued their effort to destroy the manifests and thereby prevent any criticism for maintaining two sets of records. Oliver decided to destroy the records on January 1, 1945, because that date would be six weeks after the contractor's delivery of the last microfilms. New York records personnel would then have six weeks' experience with the entire microfilm set. Already, New York reported that for the last five months verification clerks had not had occasion to refer to original manifests. Oliver saw no reason to preserve the originals. In fact, he said he only delayed disposal until January 1 because he thought it "justifiable in view of the deep-seated feeling on the part of Mr. Watkins about the whole subject."7

Savoretti then offered Watkins one more chance to make the manifest decision unanimous. The acting commissioner admitted the original purpose in microfilming was not to save space but to preserve the records. The project achieved that goal. The manifests were preserved, and the microfilm now served for verification purposes. Savoretti said he and others at Central Office had discussed the issue again and again, and "none of us can perceive any justifiable excuse for maintaining the two sets of records." Rather, he expected that keeping the original manifests would bring "considerable criticism" from both the Bureau of the Budget and the Justice Department.8

Watkins felt betrayed. When planning the microfilm project in 1943, Central Office had assured him that no decision had been made as to destruction of the manifests and that when the question did come up, Central Office would take no "hasty action . . . nor would this office be hurried in reaching a conclusion." Now, even before the contractor delivered all the microfilm, and after only a few months’ experience using the film for verification work, officials in Washington wanted him to join them in a rush to destroy official government records. Watkins was not persuaded. The district director remained firm in his objection and his warning that the INS would regret "doing away with such valuable and irresplaceable [sic] documents." Watkins pleaded for preservation of the original records:

As I view it, no one can undertake to say at this time that some very vital need may not develop for frequent reference to these records in the future, for a number of reasons which can not be foreseen at this time. As previously stated, microfilms are merely copies of original documents and to destroy the latter beyond any possibility of recall when there has been no adequate opportunity to ascertain whether such destruction is in the public interest, would, it seems to me, be a grievous mistake.

Watkins offered a compromise solution. He determined that all the New York manifests and index books could be stored in 15,322 cubic feet of space, and he offered to store them in the basement of the INS building in Manhattan or in INS's ample space on Ellis Island.9 It was a futile gesture, since Savoretti already admitted that the space issue was not Central Office's only motivation.

Two days later, Savoretti ordered Oliver to take the question to Acting INS General Counsel Albert E. Reitzel for confirmation of the argument Savoretti used in July 1943, when he tried to persuade Commissioner Harrison to sign off on destruction of the records. He wanted the general counsel to provide a legal opinion "as to whether or not the microfilm records are admissible evidence in lieu of the originals." If Reitzel confirmed that microfilm would meet the rules of evidence, Savoretti would proceed with his plan to destroy the originals on January 1, 1945.10

Reitzel understood the request. After three weeks, he delivered his opinion in a memorandum to Oliver. It was a simple discussion and explanation of Section 13 of the Records Act of July 7, 1943, that clearly stated that photographs and microphotographs of official records "shall be treated as originals" for legal purposes. Only at the end of the memorandum did Reitzel supply the answer Savoretti really wanted, when he noted "that if the original records are not destroyed and there is no showing made in the court that they are destroyed, there may be instances where the courts would only consider the original records as admissible in evidence."11

If maintaining original records meant the INS still had to provide original documents to the courts, the service could not afford to keep the originals. From the beginning, the New York manifest microfilming was a pilot project under the Records Act. The INS hoped to microfilm and destroy a multitude of records kept at numerous offices throughout the country. If Central Office allowed District Director Watkins to prevent destruction of manifests in New York, then other officials might prevent the destruction of many other records nationwide. To ensure success of the entire records management program, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had no choice but to order destruction of the manifests.

While Watkins was no doubt aware of Central Office's larger goals, he had not given up his fight. When Deputy Commissioner Thomas B. Shoemaker visited the New York District on February 21, 1945, Watkins prevailed upon him to intercede on the manifests' behalf. Shoemaker immediately ordered Oliver to delay "destruction of those records until I have an opportunity to discuss the matter further with the Commissioner." Shoemaker apparently made a convincing case when he finally met with Commissioner Ugo Carusi, because a mid-March memorandum to the file reported that Carusi decided “the matter should be left ‘status quo.’”12

Administrative officers in Washington had to wait for another opportunity to destroy the New York manifests, but they did not have to wait long. By early May, Oliver learned that New York had submitted a requisition for two hundred new manifest binders. He returned the requisition and suggested that New York empty two hundred binders containing manifests already microfilmed. The removed pages could be tied up with string and stored, the binders reused, and the INS spared the expense of purchasing new binders. After New York's Administrative Services officer resisted this idea, Central Office prepared an accounting of just how much money the INS could save if salvageable binders from New York (five thousand of them) could be used to supply all future requisitions for binders from INS offices nationwide.13

The numbers projected an ultimate savings of $12,500, a fact that finally moved Commissioner Carusi. In a memorandum of May 23, he explained that the New York manifests had been spared because they put no burden on the service. "If, however, their retention is to prevent our use of the binders which are needed elsewhere and which must be replaced by purchase, the jig is up, and the next two paragraphs [disposal procedures] come into merciless operation." The commissioner directed Watkins to macerate the manifests and report to Central Office as to how many binders became available for INS use. He then told an INS management officer that if he saw "many more memo's on N.Y. manifests, I shall make careful arrangements to become psycopathic [sic]."14

Commissioner Carusi was mistaken if he expected Watkins to destroy the manifests. Just days after Carusi's memorandum, New York Office records managers moved to preserve the original records by recommending their permanent retention:

These are the original records of arriving passengers which show in red and blue ink the notations of the inspectors who examined the passengers, these notations having specified significance. In microfilming the records, the notations appear in black only. There are occasions when it is advisable to refer to the original record to correctly interpret entries of the examining inspector. Other reasons may develop for requiring the original records. We know now that the courts frequently call for the original records, rather than the microfilmed records. The retention of these records does not create a space problem. We strongly recommend the retention of these records for an indefinite period.15

In response to the commissioner's memorandum, the New York Administrative Services officer notified Central Office of his "interpretation that this district may retain manifests already microfilmed, provided the binders . . . are made available for reuse." He emptied two hundred binders and bound the old manifest pages with wrapping paper and string. Commissioner Carusi approved this solution as long as New York would supply any INS office in need of additional binders.16

Despite every effort by INS administrative officers, the New York manifests remained indestructible. At least it seemed that way for the next two years, until December 1947, when the commissioner received a memorandum from the New York District's new administrative officer, Trent Doser. The Atomic Energy Commission was moving into the New York District office building and required both the fifth and sixth floors. To free up this space, Doser thought it necessary to destroy those manifests already microfilmed. Within a week, Central Office provided him with copies of the 1945 disposal authority.17

INS sold the old New York manifests to General Waste Products, Inc., for $1,274.90 in January 1948. On January 20, the first of three railroad cars full of original manifests were made into pulp at the Crocker, Burbank and Co. Association Mill #9. The complete destruction of Ellis Island manifests on January 20, 22, and 27 was certified by the mill superintendent and an INS witness from the Boston District Office.18

Fifty years later, thousands of researchers around the country curse immigration manifest microfilm. The quality of the film is often poor. When the federal government began to adopt the new technology of microfilm, INS was one of the first agencies to contract for filming such a large series of records, and filming the oversized manifests was a grand experiment. Scratches on the film date from that first hot summer of 1943, and daily use by the INS exacerbated the problem. The National Archives' copies of the microfilm did not experience such heavy use until more recent decades.

Those who struggle with the microfilm may try to take comfort in this thought: Had they not been microfilmed, a copy of the immigration manifests might not be available at the National Archives. The INS’s constant use of the original records would have worn them out completely if they had not been preserved in some way. Had they been laminated, as was once suggested, there would still be only one, original, copy. That official record would have remained with the INS, where arrival records are scheduled for retention for only one hundred years. Had they not been microfilmed, originals for the years 1892 through 1895 would already be destroyed, and those manifests of immigrants who arrived in 1896 and later would be on their way to destruction.19

The Creation and Destruction of Ellis Island Immigration Manifests: Part 1

Marian L. Smith as been the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service historian since 1988. 


1 Memorandum, Joseph Savoretti to Commissioner Earl G. Harrison, May 6, 1944, INS file 56134/715, Immigration and Naturalization Service.

2 Memorandums, Perry M. Oliver to New York District Director W. Frank Watkins, May 13, 1944; Watkins to Oliver, May 17, 1944; all in Oliver to Watkins, May 20, 1944, INS file 56134/715.

3 Memorandums, L[eonard] G. Townsend to L. A. Geyer, Sept. 29, 1944; Townsend to Oliver, Sept. 29, 1944, p. 1, INS file 56134/715.

4 Memorandum, Acting Commissioner Savoretti to Watkins, Sept. 29, 1944, INS file 56134/715.

5 Memorandum, Watkins to Savoretti, Oct. 6, 1944, INS file 56134/715.

6 George A. Cameron, Jr., Graphic Microfilm Service, Inc., to Townsend, Aug. 14, 1943, p. 1, INS file 56134/715. The INS solved the dust and cinder problem in New York by installing partitions and filtering fans during the fall of 1943. This remedy, however, only increased the temperature in the microfilm room during the summer of 1944. "[T]here have been several cases of fainting clerks," reported Mr. Townsend, "and a genuine endeavor on the part of the survivors to get out of the room as quickly and for as long a period as possible." Air-conditioning was subsequently installed. Memorandum, Townsend to Geyer, July 22, 1944, INS file 56134/715.

7 Memorandum, Oliver to Savoretti, Oct. 12, 1944, INS file 56134/715.

8 Memorandum, Savoretti to Watkins, Oct. 18, 1944, INS file 56134/715.

9 Watkins to Savoretti, Oct. 21, 1944, INS file 56134/715.

10 Savoretti to Oliver, Oct. 23, 1944, INS file 56134/715.

11 One wonders how Reitzel felt about destroying the original manifests. He closed his memorandum by making clear the decision did "not undertake to offer any opinion on any matter except the legal question as to the admissibility in evidence of the microfilmed copies." Acting General Counsel Albert E. Reitzel to Oliver, Nov. 13, 1944, INS file 56134/715.

12 Memorandums, Watkins to Oliver, Feb. 22, 1945; Deputy Commissioner Thomas B. Shoemaker to Oliver, Feb. 22, 1945; and "Memorandum for File" (Geyer), Mar. 17, 1945, all in INS file 56134/715B.

13 Memorandums, Oliver to Watkins, May 8, 1945; Ralph H. Holton to Oliver, May 12, 1945; and Townsend to Geyer, May 17, 1945, all in INS file 56134/715B.

14 Memorandum, Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Ugo Carusi to Watkins, May 23, 1945, and transmittal slip annotated by Mr. Carusi, May 23, 1945, INS file 56134/715B.

15 Form G-38, Files Inventory and Appraisal (NY 000163), May 25, 1945, INS file 56241/103 ("Disposition of useless paper, New York District"), box 16, accession 85-59A2038.

16 Memorandum, Holton to Oliver, June 5, 1945; transmittal slip (Carusi's approval), June 6, 1945; and Oliver to T. F. Higgins, June 7, 1945, INS file 56134/715B.

17 Memorandums, New York District Administrative Officer Trent Doser to Commissioner, Dec. 18, 1947; Assistant Commissioner for Administration H. R. Landon to Watkins, Dec. 23, 1947, INS file 56214/103.

18 Memorandums, Doser to the Commissioner, Feb. 11 and 20, 1948; Certificates of Disposal dated Jan. 20, 22, 27, and 28, 1948, INS file 56214/103.

19 These dates apply, of course, to all ports of entry other than New York. Due to a fire in mid-June 1897, INS Ellis Island manifests only date back to June 1897.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.