In Celebration of 100 Years of the Panama Canal: West Indian Canal Employee Records
Today’s Blog Post was 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
August 15, 2014, marked the 100th Anniversary of the completion of the Panama Canal. So, it would seem like an appropriate time to continue my dialogue about the records in the National Archives that deal with the diverse nationalities that were responsible for the Panama Canal’s construction and maintenance. Last year, in the “Panama Canal Employees: Service Record Cards (Part 1) and (Part 2)” blogs, I discussed the limited amount of information on West Indian Workers found in the Service Record Cards (NAID 7226556) series, even though they were the largest group of people employed by the Panama Canal.
However, there are other series in RG 185 Records of the Panama Canal that relate to the employment of West Indians in the Canal Zone. These records are not as voluminous or as extensive as those for the white employees, but they still reveal much about the occupations and backgrounds of the West Indian workers. Most West Indians were employed in manual intensive positions, but without their labor there would not have been a Panama Canal. Therefore, it is fitting as we celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the completion of the Panama Canal that we also highlight the West Indian workers whose blood, sweat, and tears built it.
There are a number of series that relate to West Indian employees within RG 185. These series include Applications for Photo-Metal Check, 1918-1919 (NAID 6821421); Metal Check Issue Cards, 1930-1937 (NAID 7226555); Sailing List of Contract Laborers, 1905-1913 (NAID 7226554); and Labor Service Contracts, 1905-1913 (NAID 7351398). All four series listed above are scheduled to be moved to the National Archives at St. Louis, MO later this year and but can now be found on the FamilySearch website. [Click on View Images in this Collection to see the digitized series]
West Indians came from Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada, Martinique, and Trinidad. They came to the Canal Zone looking for better employment opportunities and improved working conditions. But once they were employed with the Panama Canal Company, West Indian workers also experienced racial discrimination. A lot of these men were employed as laborers to dig, clear the land, and level or grade the earth in order to build the Miraflores Locks or the Gatun Dam. Very few, if any, whites were assigned these types of jobs. The races were segregated with people of color getting lower wage jobs, poorer working conditions, and inferior housing than the white employees. This discrimination is documented in the General Correspondence, 1905-1914 (NAID 1065499) and in the General Records, 1914-1960 (NAID 7491558). There is a subject index for these two series that lists topics such as laborers quarters, rates of pay for manual labor, colored schools, and colored towns that discuss these unequal conditions.
There are other records in our custody that can add not only to our knowledge about West Indian employees but all employees that lived within the borders of the Canal Zone. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that employees in the Canal Zone married and raised families in the Canal Zone. Generations of men and women married, had children, and died there before the canal was turned over to Panama in 2000. We have records that document these phases of their lives such as Marriage Licenses, 1904-1979 (NAID 7694692) and Clergy Marriage Registration Books, 1904-1979 (NAID 7542706). These records list such information as the bride’s and groom’s names, the names of the witnesses, and the date of the marriage.
We also have a fragmentary set of Registers of Birth, 1910-1928 (NAID 7351411); Records of Deaths, 1905-1949 (NAID 7387658); and Death Certificate Cards, 1914-1915 (NAID 7408557). The birth records list such information as the father’s name, the father’s nationality, the child’s birth date, and a registration number. The death records list information concerning the deceased such as name, date of death, grave number, nationality, cause of death, age, color/race, sex, and place of death. The marriage, birth, and death records apply to individuals who lived within the Canal Zone. Those workers who lived in Panama and commuted to the Canal Zone were governed by the laws of Panama and their vital records are in custody of the Panamanian Government.
I have cited some, not all major series of records found in the custody of the National Archives that document the contributions of the West Indian workers to the building of the Panama Canal. I hope this brief blog will inspire others to come in and do more research into this important aspect of American history.