Puerto Rican Laborers buried at Beaufort National Cemetery, 1918

In 1898, the United States acquired Puerto Rico as a prize of the Spanish-American War. In the following years large, corporate-financed sugar plantations transformed Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy and displaced thousands of subsistence farmers from their own land, forcing them into the rural wage labor force. These dramatic changes in the rural economy in the years before World War I pushed unemployment levels in Puerto Rico to crisis proportions. At the same time, American entry into what became known as World War I created labor shortages in many industries on the mainland. and in May of  1918 ,  the U.S. Department of Labor set out plans for bringing more than 10,000 Puerto Rican laborers to the U.S. to work on war-related projects.  The Labor Department estimated that there were approximately 75,000 laborers in PR that needed work. This number was confirmed by Santiago Iglesias Pantín a  member of the Puerto Rican  Senate and President of the Free Federation of Labor for Puerto Rico.

By June of 1917  the first wave of contracted Puerto Rican laborers to continental United States began arriving  at Norfolk, Newport News, and Baltimore and other Southern ports  and quickly dispatched to work on the construction of  camps, barracks and other facilities  needed by the US military.

Under the terms of the contract, the Puerto Ricans were to receive 35 cents an hour, with time and a half for overtime work and  fed by the Government commissary, at their assigned military base and each would pay 25 cents a meal. Housing was to  be furnished to these men without cost.

It seemed to be  what we would now call a “win-win” solution—the US needed labor and Puerto Rico had a corner of that market. However, as with the exportation of Puerto Rican labor to Hawaii 17 years earlier, there were differences between the promises made and the promises kept. This difference is best illustrated by the case of Rafael Marchán a native of Barceloneta, PR who filed an affidavit with the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico in Washington DC 

The full text of this complaint can be found at the following website. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5064/  and: in "Rafael Marchán Statement," October 24, 1918 in Record of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, Record Group 350, File 1493 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives), 123–126.

Essentially Marchán states that he and other contracted laborers were brought from Porto Rico to Camp Bragg, at Fayetteville, North Carolina, on September 29, 1918; where they were housed in improperly constructed barracks without protection from the cold weather. continually subjected to other forms of physical, medical and mental mistreatment by the contractor and other authorities at Fort Bragg. He states that as a result …” some twenty-two of them have died from utter lack of proper care and medical attention”.

At the present time there is no corroborating evidence of these 22 deaths. However, it has come to light that 81 Puerto Rican laborers are buried at the Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, SC that had died at Camp Jackson, SC.  We do not know the exact circumstances of these latter deaths, however based on the dates of death that range from mid November  1918 to early January 1919, we are surmising that they were victims of an influenza “pandemic” that killed more than 30 million people world wide from the summer of 1918 through the winter of 1919.  This pandemic was called the “Spanish Flu” but had originated in the Orient and was particularly virulent at the warfront in Europe and at military camps in the US where soldiers and civilians were housed in close proximity.

We are indebted to Mr. Jorge Rosado of Chicago who first alerted us about the deaths. Upon further investigation, we contacted Ms. Kathy Zahn, Caretaker of the Beaufort National Cemetery. She and Mr. Marvin Onks of the National Cemetery Administration  supplied, respectively, the list of names and  headstone pictures that appear on following pages.

Continue to the photos
Continue to the list of names