Today’s blog was written by Sonia A. Prescott, Doctoral Student in History at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Scholarship on the Panama Canal has steadily evolved from focusing solely on the United States and its triumph over the land to a more nuanced look at the plight of the everyday people involved in the work of the Canal. Scholars are beginning to recognize that the story of how the Canal was built is a fascinating story but it is not the only story. Instead historians are beginning to push researchers to look closer at the workers who built and maintained the Panama Canal. Recent academic research highlights that the vast majority of the laborers that worked on the Canal Zone were from the English-speaking Caribbean and worked under the harshest labor conditions, were given the worst housing and the lowest wages. The story of these workers does not however end there. Records from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) demonstrate that Caribbean laborers joined unions, went on strike and fought tirelessly for the rights and respect that their labor on the Panama Canal earned them.
To learn more about their story researchers can begin by looking at the records related to one of the largest and most active unions in the Canal Zone, the United Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way and Railway Shop Employees, a U.S. based railroad union. This union was more commonly known as the United Brotherhood. Despite the fact that the United Brotherhood was a railroad union, employees from all the over the Canal Zone joined. This was due to the tremendous efforts of two men, William Preston Stoute and Eduardo V. Morales. Stoute was a schoolteacher on the Canal Zone that was originally from Barbados while Morales was a Panamanian who worked as a clerk in the municipal engineering department. As employees of the Canal Zone their personnel records are held by the National Archives and Records Administration and can be found in Record Group 185 Records of the Panama Canal.
One component of their personnel records is the Applications for Photo-Metal Check series (National Archives Identifier 6821421). These applications were completed when employees wanted to apply for a photo metal check which was part of the payroll system on the Canal Zone. A glance at Stoute’s photo metal check application provides some really important details about his life. As you can see below Stoute was born in Barbados on April 21, 1884 and arrived in Panama on June 15, 1906. This means that he was 22 when he first arrived in Panama. Other details like his salary and his residence on the Canal Zone are also available on the application. Details such as these can be used to learn quite a bit about the man who led the United Brotherhood.
A glance at Morales’ photo metal check application provides important details about his life. For example, Morales was born in Panama on November 14, 1882. The application also indicates that Morales was able to read and write which would have been crucial skills in his position as clerk. Morales was also paid $50.00 (USD) per month which would have been significantly more than the average laborer received at the time. Other details like his residence on the Canal Zone are also available on the application. These types of details can be used to create a more complete picture of Morales life on the Canal Zone and thus his involvement with the union movement.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Photo Metal Check Applications as a collection of records is that almost all employees of the Panama Canal had to complete these forms. NARA thus maintains these files as part of its extensive collection of personnel records that are generally open to the public. This means that these files can be used for genealogy research, labor union research and for a number of other uses. The files are currently being housed at the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland, but are in the process of being digitized and may be available online shortly.For information about this particular set of records please contact the reference staff at Archives2reference@nara.gov.