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Margaret Elizabeth Sellers was born on 28 Jul 1865 at Tradeston, Glasgow.

On her birth certificate (which I have not sighted), the occupation of her father, Robert Sellers (my 3rd great grandfather), is stated as being "Railway Company, Ship Building Manager, Panama, Central America".

Was there only one Railway Company operating in Panama at that time? i.e. the 1855 Panama Railroad. If so, are its personnel records likely to have survived?

I have reviewed Obtaining personnel records about Panama Canal without going to Panama? but the Panama Canal Company to which that refers seems to belong to a later period (1904-1914).

On the Death Certificate of Robert's wife Margaret (nee Clacher) on 5 Nov 1867 at Tradeston, Glasgow, his occupation was given as "Railway Company Ship Building Manager" and this is the last record I am confident to attribute to him.

Our family story is that he and Margaret "died building the Niagara Falls" (which makes no sense) and I suspect (with no evidence) that Robert probably died in Panama soon after 1867 and by the 1871 Scotland Census their four children (aged 5-16) were living in Glasgow with Margaret's brother-in-law (John Lamont), sister (Elizabeth) and mother (Mary nee Campbell), which suggests that they had been orphaned.

Consequently, I think it is the Panama Railroad Company records from about 1855 to not long after 1870 that will be the most likely to hold mentions of him.

  • I've incorporated links from the comments into my answer, since the system was nagging me not to have a discussion in chat. – Jan Murphy Mar 28 '15 at 3:43
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Since your 3rd great-grandfather's occupation includes the word manager, I wonder if he might appear in other records besides payroll records. Any company has a hierarchy of people in the company, and if someone is part of middle management, his name might turn up as the author of a report, or in the reports of his superiors, if they are reporting on the tasks performed by his department.

The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Record Group 185 contains Records of the Panama Canal. The date range for that record group is listed as 1848-1984, so they do have some pre-1904 records in these holdings.

NARA's description of the holdings indicate which NARA office holds the records. The bulk of the holdings are for the period post-1904 but there are some records from the earlier period.

Some of the NARA microfilm about the Canal is available on FamilySearch, but their holdings cover a period later than the one you are asking about:

It seems likely that if your 3g-grandfather is mentioned in this record group, it would be in the materials which have not been microfilmed. However, a search for Record Group 185 on the OPA - Online Public Access prototype will show some materials which are online, and allow you to read archival descriptions for specific subgroups of material. Sort by date to narrow down the results to the individual groups of papers that fall within the date bounds you want to search.

One could also try searching Google Books, the Internet Archive, etc. for reports generated by the company. I have found some items like the Canal Record, a publication of the Isthmian Canal Commission (U.S.), dating from 1907. Private companies sometimes print company newsletters, so there may be other ephemera that might be of interest. Also, if your 3g-grandfather could have been a member of a trade union, that might be another possible source of information.

For general histories, try a keyword Search for Panama Canal at the Family History Library, on WorldCat, Google Books, Internet Archive, Hathi Trust, etc. If a book is available on a subscription service such as Ancestry.com or World Vital Records, it may also be available online at a site that isn't behind a paywall.

Newspaper searches might also yield more information about what his role was with the company.

Wikimedia commons can also turn up photos that might be of interest.

  • The record set 185.2 RECORDS OF THE PANAMA RAILROAD COMPANY 1848-1958 looks like it could be particularly interesting. – PolyGeo Mar 27 '15 at 21:23
  • I've found some interesting reading at panamarailroad.org/history1b.html but not at the level of detail to pinpoint my ancestor or his role. I wrote to panamarailroad.org quite a while ago but did not get a reply. – PolyGeo Mar 28 '15 at 3:13
  • I wonder whether "Minutes of meetings of the board of directors, 1849-1938, and of the executive and finance committee, 1849-1904." might note his passing away (assuming that happened while he worked for them) and whether he may have purchased stock to appear in "Stock registers, 1854-1914. Cancelled stock certificates, 1851-1948)". – PolyGeo Mar 28 '15 at 3:18
  • I won't be visiting for quite some time but at archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/index-numeric/… I'm trying to work out whether the 185.2 items above are in Atlanta or College Park – PolyGeo Mar 28 '15 at 3:24

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