Part I: How to use Panama Canal Personnel Records at the National Archives: My Grandfather worked on the Panama Canal

Today’s blog 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

 

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 Archives at St. Louis, Missouri.

  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 FamilySearch.org]
  5. Panama Canal: Requests for Metal Check Issue Cards, 1930-1937 [available online at FamilySearch.org]
  6. Panama Canal: Applications for Photo Metal Checks, 1918-1919 [available online at FamilySearch.org]
  7. Panama Canal: Labor Service Contracts, 1905-1913
  8. Panama Canal: Service Record Cards, 1904-1920  [available online at FamilySearch.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 copies of records that are not available online. 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. The Service Cards are available online at FamilySearch.org.

 

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 workers came from such countries as Barbados, Jamaica, and Spain. The lists are arranged alphabetically in part by name of ship and thereunder by date of arrival on the Canal Zone and place of departure. These records document the arrival of workers only. They do not give much information on their background. The Sailing Lists are available online at FamilySearch.org.

 

 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. The Metal Checks can provide the employee’s name, their age, and their job, and their wages. These series are available online at FamilySearch.org.

 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. 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 in this blog that are not online, as well as for official personnel folders (OPFs) of Panama Canal employees should be directed to the following address: National Archives at St. Louis, Attention: Archival Programs, 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.

This entry was posted in Diaspora, Genealogy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Part I: How to use Panama Canal Personnel Records at the National Archives: My Grandfather worked on the Panama Canal

  1. Pat Spears says:

    Hello Patrice, thank you for this information on the records for Panama Canal workers. My great grandfather, Henry Kreis, returned from Santiago, Cuba to New York on August 26, 1920. I thought that this might indicate that he was working on the Panama Canal. What do you think? He isn’t listed in the online records.

    Like

  2. Netisha says:

    For information regarding your father’s time working on the Canal, please contact archives2reference@nara.gov. I have also forwarded your request. Thanks for reading!

    Like

  3. Silvia Koch says:

    Our uncle, Robert B. Brown, worked in several positions for the U.S. government in the Canal Zone. His last position was as superintendent of the Cattle Industry of the Panama Canal. He died in 1920, an accidental death, on Nov. 4, 1920; he fell down a staircase at the Strangers’ Club in Cristobal or in Colon. We are trying to find more information about him, including information about his wife. Might you be able to offer some guidance? I see that your name is Brownw, also.

    Like

  4. Thank you for this information!! I am conducting research on my family tree, and my parents are from Panama. My grandparents, maternal and paternal, migrated from various islands to take jobs in the Panama Canal Zone during the construction of the canal. I am excited about the links you haver shared and expect to find additional information. I am interested in any resources that discuss and examine the Caribbean migration to Panama and the impact on the people of African descent. I am also curious about the migration of Black Panamanians to the US and the impact on their children. Thanks again and I look forwarding to reading more of your posts and reports! Wayne

    Like

Comments are closed.