Accidents, Injuries and Deaths in the Canal Zone, 1884–1999

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

This is the second in a series of blogs that relates to Panama Canal records. This blog focuses on death records and how the records can be used to perform genealogical or labor history research concerning living and working conditions in the Canal Zone. The records date from 1884–1999 and relate to accidents, injuries and deaths that occurred in the Canal Zone. The records can assist in documenting a variety of events such as whether a relative worked for the Panama Canal. Genealogical information can be obtained from the records relating to an individual’s name, age, marital status, and country of origin. In addition, illnesses and causes of injuries listed in the records can indicate the living and working conditions in the Canal Zone.

From the series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal (NAID 535444), photo number 185-G-1198

From the series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal (NAID 535444), photo number 185-G-1198

The earliest death records in our custody are the Certificates of Death [French], 1884–1894 (National Archives Identifier 7387390), which contains information relating to deaths that occurred during French construction in the Canal Zone. In addition to this series, researchers might want to also consult the General Records of the French Canal Companies, 1904–1914 (National Archives Identifier 1012543), particularly File # 14-C-X1, which relates to construction work, acquisition of land, and labor and personnel problems. The majority of the workers were French, but there were several employees from other countries, including Haiti, Martinique, Colombia, and England.

From the series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal (NAID 535444), photo number 185-G-131

From the series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal (NAID 535444), photo number 185-G-131

In several instances the death records document the deaths of Canal employees as well as members of their families, sailors docking at Zone ports, passengers on steamships, and residents of the Canal Zone. Record of Deaths, 1905–1949 (National Archives Identifier 7387658) and Death Certificate Cards, 1907–1915 (National Archives Identifier 7408557) capture this type of information. These series include information on males, females, and children from various countries including Jamaica, Panama, the United States, England, and Spain.

From the series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal (NAID 535444), photo number 185-G-1197

From the series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal (NAID 535444), photo number 185-G-1197

Another substantive series that is similar to the previously records is the Gorgas Hospital Mortuary Records, 1906–1999 (National Archives Identifier 7694678). The records relate to individuals who died in the Gorgas Hospital, which was used to treat patents for malaria and yellow fever. These records cover the largest time span and relate to a specific hospital in the Canal Zone. These records can be searched in the Access to Archival Databases (AAD).

From the series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal (NAID 535444), photo number 185-G-1194

From the series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal (NAID 535444), photo number 185-G-1194

In addition to records in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) concerning accidents and deaths in the Canal Zone, we also have records relating to accidents and deaths that occurred on Steamships. The Panama Canal Company was an adjunct to the Canal Zone operation. The Company owned a steamship line that was responsible for transporting provisions and passengers between New York, the Canal Zone and South American ports of call. Most of these records have information on the deceased, such as their name, age, nationality, and cause of death.

These steamship records cover employees and to a small extent non-employees. The employees include workers such as seamen, waiters, and cooks. The passengers included Canal employees returning to the Canal Zone from vacation to the United States and families or individuals traveling to Panama or the Canal Zone.

Please note that most of these records concerning accidents, injuries or deaths in the Canal Zone or on steamships are fragmentary and does not cover all deaths. The Department of State, Consular Section has a more complete set of records for deaths occurring in the Canal Zone.

The series related to steamships include Personal Injury Registry Books, 1906–1914 (National Archives Identifier 7542695), Index to Panama Railroad Relocation Injury Claims, 1914–1951 (National Archives Identifier 7542845), Personal Payroll Injuries Index Book, 1911–1912 (National Archives Identifier 7542768), Records Relating to Employee’s Accidents, Sickness or Disability, 1919–1951 (National Archives Identifier 7822663), Employee’s Accidents, Sickness or Disability, 1951–1960 (National Archives Identifier 7822689), Injury Report Files, 1952–1960 (National Archives Identifier 7822682), Reports Relating to Deaths on Steamers, 1949–1960 (National Archives Identifier 7822683). These series add insight into life on board ships for workers and travelers, as well as document a relative’s service for the Panama Canal.

From the series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal (NAID 535444), photo number 185-G-136

From the series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal (NAID 535444), photo number 185-G-136

All of the records discussed in this blog can provide useful information concerning the lives of those living on the Canal Zone. The information provided ranges from genealogical to social and labor topics. These topics are of interest to many researchers and these records may prove valuable to their hunt for historical information.

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