Solving the Riddle of Record Groups 21 and 185

De-mystifying the Silver People’s Records in NARA

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:


 It  stipulates that the requestor needs:

A notarized written (or typed) request that includes all of the following information:

Birth Certificates:

  • Full name of the child at birth
  • Any adoptive names of child
  • Date and place of birth
  • Full name of parents
  • Return address and telephone number

2. A copy of requester’s valid identification

3. A $50.00 check or money order for each copy requested.

  • Make payable to “Department of State”
  • The Department will assume no responsibility for cash lost in the mail.

For Death Certificates:

1. A notarized written (or typed) request that includes all of the following information:

  • Full name of deceased
  • Date and place of death
  • Signature of requester
  • Return address and telephone number

2. A copy of requester’s valid identification

3. A $50.00 check or money order for each copy requested.

  • Make payable to “Department of State”
  • The Department will assume no responsibility for cash lost in the mail.

4. Mail to:

Department of State
Passports Vital Records Section
1150 Passport Services PL
6th Floor
Dulles, VA 20189-1150

To check the status of your Panama Canal Zone document request, call 202-485-8300.

Marriage Cerificates.  According to the web site for the Panama Canal Society:


The National Archives only has marriage certificates through 1979.

Accession Number is 185-98-009

National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001

For marriages after 1979, write to:

Director General
Tribunal Electoral
Registro Civil
Apartado 5281
Panama 5, Republic de Panama

Cost for Marriage records from NARA is the same as for death and birth, US$50.00.

Cost for marriage records from Panama is unknown at this time.  We will attempt to provide the cost when we speak with the TE people here in Panama.

Note: There is 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.

6 responses to “Solving the Riddle of Record Groups 21 and 185

  1. My wife’s father was a Colombian/Panamanian that worked on the canal. He is passed and we would like to find information about him. Where should we start?


  2. Are there any updates? I really want to get involved with history documentation and any other research that is necessary to get our history told.

    Please let me know if there are any new developments.

    Thank you.


    • Ms. Palmer,

      Thank you for your concern for these vital sources related to the intangible cultural heritage of our Silver People of the Panama Canal Zone. We acknowledge the same concern regarding gaining more individuals like yourself who are willing to be active American citizens of Westindian Panamanian descent. However, we need to hear from you via e mail with more information as to your particular circumstances such as, where you live and any knowledge you may have that may help us in our lobbying efforts. We can then take it from there and continue our dialogue on a more confidential level as this very sensitive issue warrants. Please contact us by clicking the “e-mail here” link on the side bar.

      Again, thank you for your concern.



  3. In researching Panama Fever, Digging Down Gold Mountain, I too was surprised by the paucity of official documentation. One reason being that especially for the Jamaicans who worked during the U.S. canal construction, their status was often in flux or “off the books” as they were in Panama without their colonial government’s sanction. A less savory possibility being that the rumored reports were true that some workers were “held” offshore without pay until needed.

    One book that helped out greatly was “The Silver Men” by Velma Newton which I still consider the seminal book on the roots of Panama’s West Indian immigrants.


  4. Mr. Hummer,

    Good to see you here on the Silver People Heritage site again. As always, you bring up a salient point. There is very little written documentation on the contribution of the Black West Indians on the Panama Canal- that is very little documentation that has been brought to light. Much in the Records Group 21 and 185 is left to be discovered.

    We did review Ms. Patrice Brown’s paper on this body of important records but her focus seemed to be the African Americans and their presence in the Panama Canal Zone. It is precisely the vulnerability of the Panamanian West Indians in so far as their citizenship status is concerned (particularly the Panamanian born children) that at one point made them “stateless” people in Panama (1941) with no nationally protected rights as both Panamanians and as residents living on the Canal Zone. You may read more about that here:

    Many people, for example, do not know that unlike white American children born on the Zone (who were considered American citizens) the black Westindian children born on the Zone received some kind of ambiguous “birth document” labelling them “Negro” in the place of nationality. Better accessibility to the records of this large and important group of people would shed light on these kinds of injustices.

    Again, thank you for your visit and input.


  5. I am finding this to be a very interesting narrative. I recently developed an exhibit for the Panama Canal Museum on the West Indian Contribution to the Construction of the Panama Canal. I was surprised to find so little written documenting the essential contributions of the West Indians. I did find one of the staff of NARA, Patrice Brown, who has published a paper on the Silver Roll. She is also amazingly knowledgeable about Record Group 185.

    I shall be checking back here regularly.


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