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Written by

Patrice Brown, Archivist (Special Assistant) in the Evaluation and Special Projects Division, National Declassification Center at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

 

There has been increased interest in the employees of the Panama Canal since I posted several blogs in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the construction of the canal. Many researchers are interested in tracing their ancestors who might have worked on the canal. To assist these researchers, I will be offering several “how to blogs” on records in NARA’s custody that concern Panama Canal employees. The blogs will discuss such records as personnel, marriage, birth, and death, where they are located, and how to search and request information from these records.

Working with dynamite was one of the most dangerous jobs in the Canal Zone. Deaths and severe injuries to these laborers were not uncommon. In this February 1912 photograph several “powder men” are shown loading shot holes with dynamite to blast a slide of rock in the west bank of the Culebra Cut.  (National Archives Local Identifier 185-G-154)

Working with dynamite was one of the most dangerous jobs in the Canal Zone. Deaths and severe injuries to these laborers were not uncommon. In this February 1912 photograph several “powder men” are shown loading shot holes with dynamite to blast a slide of rock in the west bank of the Culebra Cut.
(National Archives Local Identifier 185-G-154)

The first “how to blog” exams personnel records in NARA’s custody. The records may provide a lot of genealogical information such as the age, place of birth, parent’s names, occupation, and whether the employee was single or married. All personnel records for the Panama Canal are a part of RG 185 Records of the Panama Canal, and are located at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. Researchers should contact the reference staff about how to request series relating to the Panama Canal.

  1. Panama Canal Railroad, 1896-1920
  2. American Citizen Official Personnel Files, 1904-1920
  3. Panama Canal Official Personnel Files, 1903-1920
  4. Panama Canal: Sailing Lists of Contract Laborers, 1905-1910 [available online at Family Search.org]
  5. Panama Canal: Requests for Metal Check Issue Cards, 1930-1937 [available online at Family Search.org]
  6. Panama Canal: Applications for Photo Metal Checks, 1918-1919 [available online at Family Search.org]
  7. Panama Canal: Labor Service Contracts, 1905-1913
  8. Panama Canal: Service Record Cards, 1904-1920  [available online at Family Search.org]
  9. Records Concerning Individuals (“99 Files”), 1907-1960

 

The records containing the most substantive information are to be found in series 1, 2, 3, 7, and 8. The records most often include employees from the United States as well as Europe (series 1, 2, 3, and 8). All of these series are arranged alphabetically by last name of the employee that served between 1896 and 1920. So if you know the name of the employee and when they worked on the Canal you should have enough information to request these records. The documents may contain a wealth of information on the individual as well as their family members such as place of birth, age, mother’s name, father’s name, etc. However, not all personnel files are created equal. Some personnel files may be filled with information while others contain only the bare bones information on the employee. So do not be surprised if a particular employee’s file that you are interested in contains next to no information or incomplete information.

 

Employees from the West Indians are most often found in series 4, 5, 6, and 7. The Sailing Lists of Contract Laborers, 1905-1910 list the names of the men from other countries hired to work on the Canal. The lists are arranged alphabetically by name of ship and thereunder by date of arrival on the Canal Zone and place of departure. These records are more difficult to access because the records require you to know the name of the ship, date of arrival, and place of departure such as Barbados or Spain. If you can supply all the necessary information you may request these records. However, the lists only name the workers without supplying any more information.

 application for photo-metal check-employees

Requests for Metal Check Issue Cards, 1930-1937 and Applications for Photo Metal Checks, 1918-1919 are arranged by assigned numerical numbers. To search these records you have to consult a name index for these series. Once you have a file number to go with the name a search of the metal check records can be made. The Metal Checks can provide the employee’s name, their age, and their job, and their wages.

 request for metal check issue

Labor Service Contracts, 1905-1913 are agreements between an individual and the hiring officials on the canal. The records are arranged alphabetically by the last name of the individual. It contains a description of the individual, their age, and their place of birth. Knowing the name of the individual and when he was hired on will allow for a detailed search of these records.

 

Records Concerning Individuals (“99 Files”), 1907-1960 are arranged by year and thereunder alphabetically by the last name of the individual. In this case you would have to know the name of the individual and the years that he worked on the canal. The value of this series of records has proven to be questionable given their nature. The records deal more so with incidents than with individuals. If you know of a prominent incident that might have garnered attention from Canal officials then you might request these records. I have not found these records valuable in providing information on canal employees.

 

Placing granite in the hollow quoin. Dry Dock No. 1, Balboa, June 21, 1915.  (National Archives Local Identifier 185-HR-4-26J164)

Placing granite in the hollow quoin. Dry Dock No. 1, Balboa, June 21, 1915.
(National Archives Local Identifier 185-HR-4-26J164)

Researchers should realize that not all personnel records are still in existence. Therefore, we may not be able to document the service of many former Panama Canal employees. Inquiries concerning the series discussed as well as for records of individuals that worked for the Panama Canal after 1920, should be directed to the following address: National Archives at St. Louis, Attention: RL-SL, P.O. Box 38757, St. Louis, MO 63138-10002. When you write in please provide as much information about the employee as possible in order to facilitate a proper search of the records.



Today’s blog was written by David Langbart, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park.

At the outbreak of World War I, William H. Hunt was serving as the U.S. Consul in St. Etienne, France. In addition to his official duties, Hunt was also a true American pioneer. In 1914, he was one of the very few African Americans serving in the Department of State, the Diplomatic Service, or the Consular Service in a professional capacity. Even more notable, he was not serving at a post in the Caribbean or in Africa.

William H. Hunt, 1911

William H. Hunt, 1911

[Source: William H. Hunt, Official Personnel Folders-Department of State (NAID 3752654); Record Group 146: Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission; National Archives, St. Louis, MO]

William Henry Hunt was born near Nashville, Tennessee on June 28, 1864, even as the American Civil War still raged. He received his education in the public schools of Nashville, at the Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts, and spent one year at Williams College before entering the business world as a clerk for Price, McCormick Co. in New York City. In 1898, he became a clerk in the U.S. consulate in Tamatave, Madagascar. His professional career began with appointment as a vice consul at Tamatave in May 1899. When the Consul Mifflin W. Gibbs resigned, he urged President McKinley to appoint Hunt in his stead. The President and Department of State took that advice and Hunt was appointed consul at Tamatave in August 1901. Hunt married Gibbs’s daughter Ida in 1904.

In 1904, Hunt sought transfer to a less remote post with a better climate and greater level of work. Hunt was appointed as consul in St. Etienne and entered into service there in November 1906. He remained in that city for over 20 years, until the U.S. closed the office in 1927. In last six years of his career, Hunt held the following postings:
●Consul at Guadeloupe May 1927
●Consul at St. Michaels, Azores September 1929
●Consul and Second Secretary of Legation at Monrovia, Liberia January 1931
●Detailed to the Department August 1932

Hunt retired on December 31, 1932, and died on December 20, 1951.

Department of State to U.S. Embassy, Paris January 15, 1927

[Source: Department of State to U.S. embassy Paris, January 15, 1927, file: 123 H 911/42a, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives, College Park, MD]

The fact of Hunt’s background was ever present in his personnel file. The summary sheet of his service is headed “WILLIAM H. HUNT, of New York. (Colored).” There are also the following comments over time:

●1913: Mr. Hunt is a well educated colored man.
●1915: The only possible objection to him and the only obstacle in the way of his promotion to a more important post is the fact that he has negro blood.
●1921: The only possible objection to him is the fact that he has negro blood. . . . Good personality for a colored man.
●1921: Seems a very creditable member of his race.
●1923: For a colored man, Mr. Hunt’s personality in all respects deserves to be rated as excellent . . . were it not that his colored blood restricts his usefulness to certain posts and countries where no prejudice against such blood exists. . . . He should not be sent to a country where any race prejudice exists.
●1925: The fact that he has negro blood in his veins cannot but detract, however, from cultural standing; . . . . standing is greatly handicapped by the fact of his wife’s racial extraction which is more evident than in his own case.
●1926: The fact that he has negro blood in his veins cannot but detract, however, from cultural standing; . . . . standing is greatly handicapped by the fact of his wife’s racial extraction which is more evident than in his own case.
●1926: The Board will remember that Mr. Hunt is colored. [In reference to a new assignment.]
●1927: As the officer and his wife are colored, he is not very mobile and must be rated low as to post utility. . . . it is possible to assign him to only a limited number of posts.

When he went to Madagascar, Hunt already read, spoke, and wrote French. After working in the French colony and in France for an extended period of time, Hunt became quite fluent with the language. Indeed, he was so immersed that when he visited the Department of State on his first return visit to the United States in 17 years in November 1921, one official noted “that he has some difficulty expressing his thoughts in English.”

Hunt was not a standout performer. His ratings varied over the years, generally in the fair/good range, but he sometimes came in for severe criticism for the small number of reports the lack of comprehensiveness in those he did submit, and a lack of initiative. It was also noted that his reports were not very well written. On the other hand, he was considered tactful, courteous, prompt, accurate, industrious, and generally made a favorable impression on the local population wherever he served. He was quite prominent and popular in St. Etienne.

Sources: William H. Hunt, Official Personnel Folders-Department of State (NAID 3752654); Record Group 146: Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission; National Archives, St. Louis, MO; Appointment Cards, file “2313″ in the 1906-1910 Numerical File (NAID 654171), and file “123 H 911” in the 1910-29 and 1930-39 segments of the Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), all part of RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.

I greatly appreciate the assistance of my colleagues Ashley Mattingly and Tina Ligon.

Soul City, North Carolina!

by on December 30, 2014


Written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

 

As a part of the Great Society, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the model cities program in 1966. This program provided federal funding to community leaders in urban areas with the intent on developing affordable housing, establishing alternative forms of municipal government, and creating antipoverty programs. Some of the areas that were selected to establish model cities were Detroit, Michigan; Oakland, California; Newark and Camden, New Jersey; Smithville, Tennessee; and Chicago, Illinois. The model cities program ended in the mid-1970s, due to conservative backlash from urban protest that occurred in the late 1960s and widespread accusations of mismanagement of government funds.

Civil Rights Activist Floyd B. McKissick was the driving force behind the Soul City project, which was to be built in Warren County, North Carolina. This model city was designed to be the residence for 50,000 people of all races and the home to businesses that would provide employment. McKissick planned for Soul City to have schools, factories, medical facilities, a man-made lake, and retail shopping by the 21st century.

Floyd B. McKissick (L) and Kimp Talley stand in front of huge 20 ft. steel and concrete sculpture which graces the entrance to Soul City at the intersection of U.S. Highway 1 and Soul City Blvd. (NAID 12584354)

Floyd B. McKissick (L) and Kimp Talley stand in front of huge 20 ft. steel and concrete sculpture which graces the entrance to Soul City at the intersection of U.S. Highway 1 and Soul City Blvd. (NAID 12584354)

The series Program Records Relating to Soul City, 1974–1979 (NAID 12584354) contains contracts, newspaper clippings, and photographs on the Soul City project. The bulk of the series consists of letters dealing with the progress of the Soul City project. Although the letters focus on the later years of the project, they give some insight into the challenges and misconceptions of building of Soul City. The following letter is from Mrs. Richard S. Bear to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Patricia Roberts Harris (June 14, 1979) showing support for McKissick and Soul City:

 

In 1975, the Raleigh News & Observer wrote an article criticizing McKissick’s motives and accused him of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement of government funds. Several members of Congress, including Senator Jesse Helms, political leaders in North Carolina, and citizens from across the country expressed concerned over the progress of Soul City. Many felt that taxpayers’ money should not be wasted on the project. The article prompted a federal investigation into the Soul City project. Even though the investigation found no wrong doing, businesses refused to invest in the project and people chose not to relocate to Soul City. Below is a letter from North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms to Harris (July 13, 1979) about concerns over HUD’s involvement with Soul City:

 

Despite the continuing efforts of Floyd McKissick and his supporters, Soul City failed. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) withdrew its funding in 1979, due to the lack of progress in creating Soul City. Despite the government foreclosure, McKissick continued to work towards his vision of a black utopia. Today, there are a few hundred people living in Soul City and a couple of buildings. The following is from McKissick to Harris (July 6, 1979) detailing his accomplishments towards Soul City:

 



Written by Kevin L. Bradley, Archives Technician in the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

The National Archives holds thousands of photographs illustrating the various activities of servicemen and women in all branches of the Armed Forces. The photographs are able to give visuals of the bravery and sacrifice that men and women in the military made during their service.

In several of the series, there are images of lesser known military heroes whose stories deserved to be acknowledged. One such person is Frederick C. Branch, the first African American commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps (USMC).

After receiving a draft notice in May 1943, Branch reported to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where he was inducted into the Marines. He was one of the first African Americans selected into the USMC after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which allowed black men to join the corps. Branch’s service and commitment during World War II, earned him at place in the officer’s training program. On November 10, 1945, Branch was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Branch would later achieve the rank of Captain in 1952.

The image below is from the General Photograph File of the U. S. Marine Corps, 1927-1981 (NAID 532396) series. This series was created by the USMC to capture the history of the Corps’ activities from early campaigns during World War II to battles in the Vietnam Conflict. It also contains images of African American Marines in wartime activities. The selected photograph shows Branch’s wife, Camilla, admiring his second lieutenant’s bars in 1945.

“The first Negro to be commissioned in the Marine Corps has his second lieutenant’s bars pinned on by his wife. He is Frederick C. Branch of Charlotte, NC.”, 11/1945 NAID 532577

Over the years, Branch has received numerous awards and honors. In 1995, the Senate passed a resolution to honor his contribution to the integration of the USMC. Additionally, an officer candidate training school in Virginia, and several scholarships were named after him.

The series Combined Military Service Digital Photographic Files, 1982-2007 (NAID 6274097), created by the Defense Visual Information Center to collect a visual record of military activities for publicity purposes, contains photographs of servicemen and women at various functions representing the Armed Forces. The photograph below shows Branch and his wife, at the dedication ceremony for Branch Hall at the Officers Candidates School, Marine Corps Combat Development Command in 1997.

Mr. Frederick Clinton Branch cuts the ribbon and officially dedicates Branch Hall at the Officers Candidates School, Marine Corps Combat Development Command. Mr. Branch is now a retired educator living in Philadelphia. Assisting Mr. Branch are his wife; Brig. GEN. E. C. Kelly, Commanding General (left); LT. GEN. P. K. Van Riper, Commanding General Marine Corps Combat Development Command; and COL. A. Davis, Commanding Officer of the Officers Candidate School, 07/09/1997 NAID 6501401

The Chaos of Emancipation

by on December 2, 2014


Written by Linda Barnickel, independent archivist and freelance writer

It’s easy for us today to think that enslaved people during the Civil War era were held in bondage, and then all of a sudden, were not. Whether they ran away or remained on the plantation until Union troops invaded the area, it’s easy to think of emancipation as a single event. Presto, change-o – unfree to free. Perhaps in a single hour or day. Their status had changed.

The reality is much more complicated. The case of northeast Louisiana in the spring and summer of 1863 proves that the emancipation of southern slaves was complex. There were three different issues in play: former enslaved as “contrabands;” freed people as laborers on U.S.-operated plantations; and the recruitment of black men as soldiers into the Union army.

 

To Colored Men! (NAID 1497351)

To Colored Men! (NAID 1497351)

During the early part of 1863, the Union Army of the Tennessee, under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, gathered along the west bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Their presence had a destabilizing effect on the nearby plantations, which were still mostly populated by their owners and their human chattel. By March of 1863, a number of planters had fled to the center part of the state, near Monroe, Louisiana, or farther west to Shreveport, or even Texas. The planters often forced their enslaved men and women to accompany them, but some bondsmen took the opportunity to run away to the East, toward Union lines. Other planters removed most of their slaves, but left their homes and plantations in charge of a few trusted servants. Sometimes, these were elderly slaves, whom planters thought not only more loyal, but were also less likely to run away due to their age and health. Other times, they may have been house servants, whom the planters thought would be able to maintain their home, perhaps preventing its destruction by Yankee marauders. But the departure of white slaveholders, coupled with the proximity of the Union Army, meant that it was not long before the former bondsmen claimed their own freedom and left the plantations for Union lines. At first in small groups, then by the hundreds, freed people headed east and flooded the Union Army camps. This quickly overwhelmed the army’s ability to provide even basic necessities, such as food and sanitation. In an effort to make the situation more manageable, the army established “contraband camps,” – or what became essentially refugee camps for former enslaved men and women.

The contraband camps in northeastern Louisiana continued to be a problem for Union authorities. First, so many freed people were in these camps that they created a significant drain on Federal resources. Not only did the Union Army have to feed and clothe its own, but now it had thousands of contrabands to provide for as well. And this, just when the army was about to move out of the region, to begin the final campaign to capture the Confederate fortress at Vicksburg, Mississippi. In an attempt to alleviate this situation, many freed people were returned to area plantations – this time, laboring for wages and under the supervision of white plantation operators from the North. These men leased the plantations from the U.S. government. Their task, and that of their black laborers, was to grow crops to provide for the freed people, help feed the army, and grow cotton to send north and sell for a profit.

 

This circular, issued by Col. Isaac F. Shepard in May 1863, reveals some of the chaos in northeastern Louisiana. Shepard found it necessary to explicitly prohibit “punishment by the lash” on government plantations, and had to sternly remind people that the U.S. government’s entire mission in the area was to “recognize...the rights of personal liberty” and “ensure...kindness and protection” to former slaves. Because many officers were forcing men into the military involuntarily, Shepard also had to provide concrete recruiting procedures, in an effort to maintain peace and order between the Army and plantation operators, and to respect the personal liberty of the former slaves.

This circular, issued by Col. Isaac F. Shepard in May 1863, reveals some of the chaos in northeastern Louisiana. Shepard found it necessary to explicitly prohibit “punishment by the lash” on government plantations, and had to sternly remind people that the U.S. government’s entire mission in the area was to “recognize…the rights of personal liberty” and “ensure…kindness and protection” to former slaves. Because many officers were forcing men into the military involuntarily, Shepard also had to provide concrete recruiting procedures, in an effort to maintain peace and order between the Army and plantation operators, and to respect the personal liberty of the former slaves. (NAID 593342)

 

Although the contraband camps and plantation leasing system probably affected the majority of freed people in the region of northeast Louisiana, the most important outcome of the Union presence in the spring of 1863, was the enlistment of black men into the Federal Army. In April, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas came from Washington to the Mississippi Valley, seeking experienced white soldiers from Grant’s army to serve as officers in what would become known as the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). These white officers were responsible for doing their own recruiting among African Americans in the region. Anxious to get their increased rank and pay, many of these officers simply went out to the plantations and pressed black men into the service. Many regiments formed at the same time and competed for the same men. Some officers were true abolitionists and felt honored to serve in this capacity. Others were opportunists, seeking rapid promotion with its increased pay and prestige, and cared little for the welfare of the enlisted black men under their command.

The first test for these soldiers came at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana on June 7, 1863. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the barely-trained African American soldiers fought valiantly in hand-to-hand combat, despite being overwhelmed by a Confederate attack. Afterwards, word spread about their impressive behavior under fire. Even the Confederate General, Henry McCulloch, admitted that the black troops fought with “considerably obstinacy.” The men of the African Brigade proved themselves, in the words of one observer, “worthy of the name of soldiers.”[1]

 

Due to overlapping administrative channels, a variety of resources document the transition from slavery to freedom in the Mississippi Valley during the summer of 1863. Information about contraband camps, Federal plantations, and the organization of African-American regiments can be found in the following sources:

RG 393 Records of US Army Continental Commands, 1821–1920

The related series were created in the 8th Louisiana Regiment Infantry (African Descent) during the American Civil War: Letters Sent, 05/1863–02/1864 (NAID 5488006); General Orders, 05/1863–07/1865 (NAID 5489965); and Special Orders, 05/1863–02/1865 (NAID 5490140).

 

RG 94 Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s–1917

The Colored Troops Division was established by General Order 143 on May 22, 1863. It administered matters pertaining to recruitment, organization, and service of the US Colored Troops. Related series include Register of Letters Received by Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, 04/1863–04/1865 (NAID 601776); Record of Regiments, 1863–1865 (NAID 602258); Applications for Appointment, 1863–1865 (NAID 602238); and Report Entitled “The Negro in the Military Service of the United States,” 1888 (NAID 602300).

 

Linda Barnickel’s prize-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory (LSU Press, 2013) further details the story of an important, but long-forgotten battle in which former-slaves-turned-soldiers played a prominent role. Click here to learn more about Milliken’s Bend.

 

[1] War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington, DC: GPO, 1889), series 1, vol. 24, pt. 2, p. 467; Frank Ross McGregor, Dearest Susie: A Civil War Infantryman’s Letters to His Sweetheart, ed. Carl E. Hatch (New York: Exposition Press, [1971]), p. 55.

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