Getting my DNA results a couple of weeks ago has inspired a new wave of family history research activity that is paying off already. This week I made my most exciting genealogical discovery to date thanks to FamilySearch.org. I found a form called a “Panama Canal Application for Photo-Metal Check Employees” for my great-grandfather Francois “Simon” Vallee. This single page provides a wealth of information that both confirms some facts we believed to be true and provided some new details that help to round out our timeline of his life and a picture of who Simon was. Let’s go through it line-by-line.
” Panama Canal Application for Photo-Metal Check Employees”
Apparently, this form was an employment record for Panama Canal Zone employees. In the case of my great-grandfather, just the fact that the form exists gives us new information! My mother’s generation remembers hearing that that Simon was a cook for the merchant marines, but did not know he had ever been an employee of the Panama Canal. As a matter of fact, there has been no recollection of either of my maternal great-grandfathers working on the canal. This always seemed curious to me because the influx of West Indian males to the isthmus during that period was associated with the construction of the Panama Railroad and the Canal.
Paraiso, August 23, 1918
It make sense that Simon would have been employed on the Pacific side of the canal, where Paraiso is located, since his descendents all settled on that side of the isthmus. The date shows that this record was produced some four years after the Panama Canal was completed and open for business.
Name: Simon Valley
I would not have found this record if I had just looked at the first few matches that came up when up I searched for “Simon Vallee.” It has not been uncommon to see the Vallee name reinterprated as Valle in Panamanian records, but this is the first time I’ve seen it transcribed as the English translation. This discrepancy could raise some doubt about whether or not this form actually does concern one of my ancestors, but I believe the following information confirms that this is indeed our Simon Vallee. Let’s keep reading.
I have seen the term dredging in relation to West Indian workers at the Panama Canal, including one of my paternal great-grandfathers from Barbados. Though I need to learn more about the term, it’s clearly a division or activity our island ancestors engaged in. And, as mentioned above, his occupation matches up with information passed on orally within the family.
Previously Employed by the Panama Canal? No.
That is a bit surprising because farther down in the form we learn that he had been in Panama since 1910. How did he finance the trip to Panama if it was not through a contract to work on the Canal? And what was he doing for the eight years in between?
Citizen of Martinique France
Martinique was at the time and still is a French territory, meaning persons born on the island of Martinique are citizens of France.
Date of Birth: Sept 17 1888
Place of birth: Martinique
JACKPOT! Not only do we have the right birth country, but the DOB matches other information uncovered a few years ago. I confirmed this by returning to the Martinique birth record for Francois Vallee , which recorded the birth on that same exact date. This adds to the preponderance of evidence that led us to conclude that Francois and Simon Vallee are the same person. Another new question: how’d he become Simon? With the little information we have I can only guess that this was a morphing of his middle name (per the Martinique birth record), Isambert.
Arrived on Isthmus: Dec 13 1910
This is new information that gives us a chronological timeframe to search records related to the voyages between the Caribbean and Panama.
Unfortunately I have yet to come across any marriage records for my great-grandparents in either Martinique or Panamanian records. This form at least tells us that they considered themselves married at the time it was completed.
When I called my mom to tell her about this exciting document I had found she mentioned a few facts she remembered hearing about her grandfather. One was that he was light-skinned. Based on his picture, which I sent to her later, she agreed that was wrong. Though the picture is black and white you can tell he had a chocolate (or darker) complexion.
Weight: 135 lbs
Before I told my mom what the form said, or that it even had height and weight information, my mom said she remembered Simon being described as a small man. Per this document, he came in at 5’5″ and a buck thirty-five so that tidbit was right on.
This is the first time I’ve seen a picture of Simon!!! I’ve had some really exciting and touching discoveries over the years with this research, but this was the first time I cried. Though this image comes from a 99 year old scanned document being viewed on a computer screen, I felt like I was getting a real good look at him. And it wasn’t just me. Other family members said they opened up the link I sent them and were excited and moved to see such a clear image of his face. Most notably, Tia Claire, Simon’s only child that is still living, was brought to tears. She has no recollection of her parents since they died when she was very young and does not recall having seen a picture of him. Imagine living long enough to become a great-grandmother, as is Tia Claire, but not knowing what your own parent looked like! I’m so grateful and honored that I could facilitate this for her.
Able to read and write? Yes
Like myself, several family members were delighted to see that Simon was literate. But there are additional details I am curious about given he was exposed to several languages over the course of his life. Simon had grown up in Martinique, a French territory where a French Creole was the main language of the black population. Did he come to Panama already literate in French and/or French Creole? (Was Creole even a written language yet?) At the time this form was completed, Simon had been in Panama for 8 years. It is possible he became literate in Spanish, the language of his new home country ,and/or English, the language of his American employers. I’d love to know.
Able to sign name? Yes
This means that the signature at the bottom of the form was most likely written by his own hand! It is definitely in different handwriting than the rest of the form, suggesting a Panama Canal employee wrote down the answers he provided orally and then had him sign the form. For me, a signature is always a touching discovery and treasured find. However, as I also always find, a new discovery brings with it new questions. The question here is: Why did he spell his name “Valley” and not “Vallee,” which current generations have come to accept as the “correct” surname? One would reason that if he’s literate he should surely know how to spell his own name meaning a signature in his handwriting should be the equivalent of “hearing it from the horse’s mouth,”…right? Before I started to freak out too much about the possibility that the “y” ending was correct, I thought about the other evidence we have related to this last name. The Martinique records for Simon (Francois) and his family all give the “Vallee” spelling. Since Martinique is where the name originated and it makes sense that the French version of the word would have been used in a French territory, I believe the spelling that has been passed down to some (not all) descendents that are still carrying the name is correct. I would conjecture that he signed his name with this alternate spelling for a couple of reasons:
- He may have been instructed to or just reasoned to himself that he should sign his name to match what the Canal Zone employee wrote at the top of the form.
- I’ve seen enough inconsistency with some other surnames I’ve researched (e.g. Mondesi/Mondesir/Mondasie/Montesy…) that lead me to suspect standardization in spelling was not as much of a priority then as it is now.
- Most importantly – Simon was a native French/French Creole speaker working for an Anglophone employer in a Spanish-speaking country. Talk about a collision of languages and cultures and a recipe for gaps in communication that would create inconsistencies in documents!
I still can’t believe it. We have a picture of an ancestor we did not think we’d ever get to see. I wonder who in the family will be the first to blow up the picture, frame it, and hang it in their home. It just may be me!