International Man of Mystery

The most exciting discovery for me regarding my great-grandfather was finding that I could obtain copies of the official despatches that he wrote from Valparaiso, Chile when he was the U.S. Consul General there in the 1890′s. At the beginning of January, 2007, I had visited the website of the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) where I found they have an on-line microfilm catalog. Here I discovered that for $65 I could purchase on microfilm the official despatches from the American consulate at Valparaiso, Chile for the years 1893 to 1906. Since my great grandfather was consul general there from 1893 to 1897, I knew that I had to buy the film. After submitting my order I realized that I was going to need a microfilm reader in order to view the documents. So going on-line I searched for microfilm readers but was quickly disappointed to find that most microfilm readers cost thousands of dollars and that cheapest one that I could find costs $495.

So, the reel of microfilm that I purchased sat there for three weeks until one morning when I got the idea that might be able view the docs if I used my scanner to scan the film. So I cut the microfilm into 11 inch strips and scanned the film at the highest resolution that memory and storage would allow. The result… I was able to view the documents.

The first document on the reel was a despatch sent by my great grandfather on his very first day in service reporting his arrival in Valparaiso. The despatch contains an inventory of the office and is signed by my great grandfather (James M. Dobbs) and the outgoing console (Corvis M Barre).


For the period covering James M. Dobbs’s tenure (5 July 1893 to 23 October 1897) there approximately 200 pages of despatches from the consul general in Valparaiso to an assistant Secretary of State in Washington, DC the contents of which are rather mundane and bureaucratic. Many of the despatches are a two page response from my great grandfather acknowledging the reciept of a circular sent from Washington. A lot of the despatches are responses to inquiries regarding seaman who have been reported missing by their families back in the states. In all of these despatches he reports that he has placed an ad in a local newspaper regarding the missing persons and after two or three weeks he has not received a response.

Among the despatches is a report regarding the sausage casing industry in Chile. On two separate occasions he received an inquiry regarding "cotton baling" and on both occasions he reported back to Washington that "There is no cotton grown in the area of the consular district."

There are reports on the arrivals and departures of American vessels and reports on the deaths of American citizens living in Chile. In one despatch, he reports that he has been receiving numerous complaints from Chilean merchants over the way in which American manufactures poorly package their shipments sent to Chile stating that items are easily stolen or damaged in transit due to poor packing.

Probably the only excitement during his tenure was when an American ship, the Parthia, caught fire at sea off the coast of Chile and was dramatically rescued by the Chilean navy. In one despatch he recommends to Washington that the US do something special to recognize the heroic efforts of the Chileans to save American lives and reports that the rescued sailors were treated with great kindness and generosity.

When he arrived in July of 1893 the consul office was located on the second floor of a dilapidated building at 140 Calle Blanco. The annual rent was $58 and my great grandfather complains in one despatch that the cramped office was "unclean" and that the furniture in the office is 25 to 35 years old. By July of 1894 he had gotten permission from Washington to re-locate to a two room office on the 2nd floor of 430 Calle Blanco, purchase new furniture, and hire a clerk. He reports that his offices are next door to the offices of the German consulate and that his residence is in an apartment on the third floor of that same building. His clerk was paid $400 a year and the rent for the new offices was $90 a year.

Besides his clerk he apparently had "consul agents" residing in other locations on the Chilean coast who reported to him. In one despatch he reports to Washington that he could not find an American citizen to act as "consul agent" in Punta Arenas (at the straits of Magellan) and that he had hired a Russian to act as the American representative in that town.

Other than the mention of his residence being on the third floor of same building as his office, the only other item of a personal note is when he sent some a form back to Washington asking that it be forwarded to his brother, E. P. Dobbs, in Georgia for signature.