They also came from Barbados, Costa Rica, Great Britain, Jamaica, Peru, Spain, the United States, and countless other countries.
They were artisans, clerks, dredgers, food service workers, helpers, painters, messengers, and steam shovel operators.
Who were they and what were they doing?
Constructing the Panama Canal.
National Archives Record Group 185, known as the “Records of the Panama Canal” contains alphabetically arranged service record cards of individuals employed between 1904 and 1920.
“The card includes information such as name, legal residence, department where they worked, date of appointment, date they entered duty, their position, age, place of birth, salary, home address, changes in their position, and leave of absence, sailings, and other miscellaneous items.”
If you aren’t up for a trip to College Park, Maryland where these records are held, you may find what you need in Family Search’s online collection entitled, “United States, Panama Canal Zone, Employment Records and Sailing Lists.”
In addition to service records, this collection also contains metal check issue card requests, and photo-metal applications.
Metal checks were what the employees had to produce in order to be paid. You can read more about the Panama Canal metal checks at Plowman’s Coins of Panama. The applications questions included, name, date of employment, date of birth or age and nationality. Thumbprints are also on the cards.
The Photo-Metal Check applications are wonderfully rich genealogical documents. In addition to their name and the occupation they held, other information included their hourly or monthly wage, citizenship, date and place of birth, marital status, sex, height, weight, and “physical deformities or peculiarities...” These applications also often included a picture of the individual. The back of the sheet contained the applicant’s full set of fingerprints and prints of the entire four fingers of each hand. Apparently, these employees were paid in silver.
While there are thousands upon thousands of images in this collection with no index, I found that a simple search for the name with the place and year of birth brought up Egbert Maynard’s Photo-Metal application—complete with picture: