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Important Historical Facts on Panama for Kids

by Shellie Braeuner, studioD

Panama is a small country on the isthmus that separates North America from South America. Its landmass contains beaches, volcanoes and rainforests. The country is home to the Panama Canal, a man-made canal that allows ships to pass from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans.

Early History

Much of Panama’s history revolves around its location. The country lies as a connection between North and South America and separates the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. At its narrowest point, the country is less than 50 miles wide. As early as the 16th century, explorers used the tiny isthmus to travel from one ocean to the other, according to the official website of the Republic of Panama. Spain would ship goods to a colony on the Atlantic side of the country and carry the goods over land to the Pacific side. Ships would lie in the harbor, ready to be filled with goods to be taken to colonies up and down the Pacific coast.


With the wealth of Spain traveling back and forth through Panama’s harbors, the country prospered but, according to Panama's official website, the wealth attracted more than just new business. All that money attracted pirates. In 1596 the pirate Francis Drake attacked the city of Portobelo. In 1671, Henry Morgan attacked the harbor and set the entire town around it on fire.

All for a Slice of Watermelon

It was a warm day in April 1856, and an American named Jack Olivier asked for a slice of watermelon from a Jose Manuel Luna, according to the official website of the Republic of Panama. Olivier ate the watermelon, but refused to pay the vendor. The two men began shouting and finally one threw a punch. Both men had friends with them who joined the fight. A train carrying Americans pulled into the station at that moment. The men onboard the train jumped into the fray, trying to stop the fight. Instead they made it worse. What started as a fight over a slice of watermelon resulted in riots.

Building the Canal

The first attempt to build the Panama Canal began in 1880 by a French company. The designer, Count de Lesseps, had already build the Suez Canal connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, according to he Panama Canal Museum. He thought that the Panama Canal would be a similar project. Unfortunately, the workers he brought from France were unable to fight the native diseases. The mosquitoes of the area carried yellow fever that killed many in the French workforce. Before de Lesseps quit, more than 25,000 people had died.

The United States Takes Over

On 1904, the United States, under President Theodore Roosevelt, picked up where the French left off. Roosevelt appointed John F. Stevens as the chief engineer of the canal project in 1905, according to records housed in the Panama Canal Museum. Stevens called on Col. William Crawford Gorgas to find the source of yellow fever and eradicate it. He followed the source of infection back to the mosquitoes and discovered their breeding ground. Because of his work to kill the mosquito larva in standing water, yellow fever was eradicated in Panama in one year. During the next 10 years, workers cut the canal, build the locks and Gatun Lake, the main source of water for the canal. The Panama Canal was completed Aug. 15, 1914. Workers finished the giant project early and under budget.

Giving Away the Panama Canal

The United States governed the Panama Canal and surrounding areas from 1904 to 1977. In 1977, the U.S. Congress voted to give the Panama Canal back to the country of Panama. The United States slowly turned over control, finally pulling out completely in 1999, according to the U.S. State Department.

About the Author

Based in Nashville, Shellie Braeuner has been writing articles since 1986 on topics including child rearing, entertainment, politics and home improvement. Her work has appeared in "The Tennessean" and "Borderlines" as well as a book from Simon & Schuster. Braeuner holds a Master of Education in developmental counseling from Vanderbilt University.

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