by Lydia M. Reid
As heritage researchers and genealogical investigators, we at The Silver People Heritage Foundation make frequent use of databases that are normally considered fairly easy to access by anyone who has very basic search skills. We search civil registries (local and U.S. vital records), cemetery records, paid on-line databases, newspaper archives in the local library and, last but not least, eyewitness accounts, if they are able and willing to converse with us. The records relating to our Silver Ancestors, however, have presented some challenges in accessibility as well as in economic approachability.
For those of you who wish to research someone in their family history who worked and/or lived, had children or contracted marriage in the Panama Canal Zone knowing about Record Groups 21 and 185 may be helpful in your quest. If you Google around for Record Group 185 you will probably come up with an all purpose article published by NARA (The National Archives and Records Administration based in Washington D.C.) that seeks to explain its scope and contents and has some interesting highlights for persistent researchers.
Entitled “Looking for an Ancestor in the Panama Canal Zone, 1904-1914” its scope is limited to the years of the American construction phase of the Panama Canal. In it, however, you will find useful hints for mapping out a genealogical search, if you take the time to make a game plan. It begins with a quick overview of the district courts system and the empowerment of the Panama Canal Zone with, basically, a government and laws and regulations of their own- making the Canal Zone a separate (autonomous) country within the Republic of Panama.
“The commission (Isthmian Canal Commission) appointed a temporary judge for the Canal Zone, and original tribunals, police magistrates, and justices of the peace administered the municipal laws. On March 22, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order that established a new ‘Code of Civil Procedure’ that would be in force May 1, 1907.”
By 1912 The Panama Canal Act specifically and permanently established federal courts in the Canal Zone divided into three circuit courts:
1. The First Judicial Circuit in Balboa
2. The Second Judicial Circuit- Empire, Gorgona, Ancon
3. The Third Judicial Circuit- Cristobal (Colon or Atlantic side)
The National Archives houses the records of these U.S. District Courts in Record Group 21 where, along with records contained in Record Group 185- the Civil records- “researchers may find an unexpected source of genealogical information.”
You may read all about the organization of these district courts and about the kinds of records they contain here. Basically the Record group is divided into four areas: The Panama Canal Zone Criminal Courts, The Panama Canal Zone Civil Courts, The Panama Canal Zone Probate Courts, and Attorney Admission Case Files, 1904-1939. Marriage records, also a court matter, are housed within Record Group 185 which contains Panama Canal Zone marriages through 1979.
Although Record Group 185 is housed in the NARA, it comes under the preview of the U.S. State Department since the U.S. Embassy in Panama and the State Department are in charge of diplomatic matters of the former Panama Canal Zone. Former Canal Zone records, therefore, were physically transferred to the U.S. and remain stored there in the National Archives, not in the Panamanian National Archives.
Very few records, in fact, of our Silver Ancestors are found in the Panamanian Archives even though the Westindian workers participated in the massive clean-up, for instance, of Panama and Colon and their outlying areas. Their record of participation does not appear in any Panamanian records and in the U.S. records they usually only appear in their last listed place of employment on the Canal Zone if they appear at all. This points to some incongruities and, in many cases, just plain sloppiness in record keeping when it came to documenting our ancestors who were members of the Silver Roll.
Often, the West Indian workers were categorized as “occasional” workers and were frequently never included in labor statistics. This presumably overlapped into death records since many of the laborers were not even counted if they didn’t come in as “contracted labor” and many of these non-contracted workers were rarely listed anywhere. This was, in fact, the case with many of the Jamaicans and the Jamaican bosses like my grandfather, Joshua A. Reid, who came in as non-contract labor and paid his own way to Panama before the completion of the Canal. I know to be a fact in following up his case which I have been researching for several years.
This brings us to the fees and the proverbial “hoops” one has to jump over in order to obtain a Record Group 185 record from NARA. If you read the requirements for obtaining copies of records on the U.S. State Department page here you will note that they are quite hefty and that is on condition that they do find a record. Here are some of the requirements and fees:
BIRTH, DEATH AND MARRIAGE CERTIFICATES:
**Your request must be notarized and include a copy of a valid photo identification of the requester.**
Why a photo identification of the requester for a copy of a vital record?? The fee for each record is US$30.00 and US$20.00 for additional copies made at the same time. It further stipulates:
“Check or Money Order must be signed, dated and made payable to Department of State. Remittance must be payable in U. S. dollars through a U.S. bank. Non-U.S. money is not acceptable. Please do not send cash.”
This only means that you have to pay an additional fee for an international money order through a U.S. bank in one of the Panamanian banks if you live in Panama. The fees begin to gather muscle.
We hope that you get the picture. The fees attached to ordering these records are truly prohibitive when you consider that for the historically marginalized descendants of the Silver Roll who were vastly underpaid and institutionally kept at a disadvantage, these fees, even today, become a virtual stumbling block.
We, at the Foundation are working arduously in the hope of breaking down these traditional and institutional barriers that have kept us from discovering and celebrating our Intangible Cultural Heritage, which is embodied in these important records. We base our claim and presumptions on International Conventions and we will be consulting the international courts regarding the protection of our rights to the free access to this type of cultural patrimony. The records of our ancestors are not merely civil records, after all; they are our historic and cultural link to our past as well as our future as citizens of Panama and the United States.