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The Princeton Pullman’s “Filipino Boys”

We’ve previously told you about the Princeton Pullman, a specially-designed railroad car that took faculty and students across North America in the 1920s and 1930s to collect geological specimens and fossils. Today, we’d like to highlight one aspect of these journeys: the Filipino staff who attended to the practical needs of the travelers, one of whom had an impact far exceeding his apparent official role as head chef.

Staff in front of the Princeton Pullman, 1926. Department of Geosciences Records (AC139), Box 39.

For each trip for which we have found records that discuss the staff, the Princeton Pullman’s attendants were universally noted as having been Filipino. This came at a time when the Philippines were a territory of the United States, and as a result restrictions on Asians entering the country under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1917 did not apply to them. They were part of a wave of Filipino migrants known as the “Manong generation” of menial laborers who were usually recruited for temporary work. “Manong” translates as “older brother;” this generation was mostly made up of young, single men like the Princeton Pullman’s staff. Their time with Princeton’s geologists corresponds to a season of American conflict about their presence in the mainland U.S. A series of deadly anti-Filipino riots fueled by racial prejudice and resentment over the perception that Filipinos were taking jobs from white Americans occurred beginning with the first year of these summer train expeditions (1926), mostly on the West coast. Attitudes toward Filipino Americans ultimately shifted during World War II.

Staff standing outside the Princeton Pullman, ca. 1928. Department of Geosciences Records (AC139), Box 39.

The Filipino travelers on board the Princeton Pullman were on their own expeditions while assisting Princeton’s faculty and students and a few other guest researchers. They may have been cooking and cleaning (tasks for which they are praised effusively), but a few sources note that at least some of them were also students. For example, a newspaper clipping from the Princeton Herald from June 18, 1926 found in the Department of Geosciences Records (AC139) informs us that the four attendants on board that year were students from the University of the Philippines. Professor Richard W. Field did not mention their education in his summary of the trip for the News-Letter of the Princeton Engineering Association in March 1927, however, only telling us, “We were especially impressed with the way the Filipino boys worked day and night to make our trip a success, and we all felt that they took as great a pride in the expedition as we did ourselves.”

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Sometimes snapshots have first names on the back, but for the most part, one does not find these men listed by name in written accounts, just as “Filipino boys” or “Filipino servants.” The journal Carl Breuer ’29 kept while on board the Princeton Pullman in 1927 contains a typical reference: “There are four Filipino boys who do all the work, including cooking and serving the meals, and making the beds. They are silent and efficient.” Breuer wrote very little about the men themselves, though he did note what they served for breakfast (“cantaloupe, cereal (either hot or cold), fried eggs and bacon, bran muffins, toast and coffee”) and their work making the beds. He names only one in passing, and tells us he was an educated man—“Hosey, the head steward, has studied at the University of California.”

Staff on board the Princeton Pullman, ca. 1928. Department of Geosciences Records (AC139), Box 39.

Though most of these Filipino men appear “silent” in our materials as well, there is one glaring exception: Potenciano Sylvestre José Mendoza Taoatao, or most commonly, just José. It seems Taoatao began work as the Princeton Pullman’s head chef in 1930 (other records suggest he may have been on staff during previous summers) and accompanied the geologists for several years afterward. Sources name him as if he were a well-known figure and often tell anecdotes about him ranging from his frightening encounter with a coyote to how rapidly he could find lost articles of clothing. He appears in photographs with the scholars out of uniform and in casual settings, and though he is quoted on many subjects, it is noteworthy that he took an apparent close interest in the scientific work of the expeditions.

Potenciano Sylvestre José Mendoza Taoatao, August 2, 1928. Department of Geosciences Records (AC139), Box 29.

Accounts of Taoatao include a 1932 article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, wherein Glenn L. Jepsen ’27 emphasized Taoatao’s difficulty with English, but also revealed that the chef was doing more than cooking. He was present on a truck headed into the South Dakota Badlands rather than left behind on board the train. Jepsen quoted Taoatao telling the geologists sizing up the mesa for its potential to hold fossils, “I hope Mr. Noah landed many animals here. Hot dog! I am sick of Oreodons. Allah and I have hunch that skeleton of saber-tooth tiger is pickled here!” (The geologists had found many Oreodons (also known as Merycoidodons), an extinct relative of the camel that was once endemic to North America.)

Photo and caption from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, December 16, 1932.

True to this prediction, Jepsen reported that the geologists uncovered two saber-toothed tigers in their dig that day. He quoted Taoatao again at the end of the article, saying he looked to the sky and said, “Allah, pickle many fossils for us next summer!”

The Princeton Pullman’s summer expeditions covered significant territory. This map shows the route the train took in 1934. Department of Geosciences Records (AC139), Box 13.

It’s hard to know what Taoatao’s role on these expeditions truly was. As a chef, records indicate he prepared any number of meals, including a special Filipino pig roast at the end of the summer of 1933. Yet it seems clear that he took more than a passing interest in the excavation of fossils, and we do know that at least some of the Filipino staff on board the Princeton Pullman were college students themselves. Our records do not tell us what happened to Taoatao or the other Filipino attendants after Princeton retired its train, or why Taoatao, in particular, was of such importance to those who took the journey with him. Was Taoatao a student? Was he a chef who happened to be particularly interested in fossils, or was he funding his research by cooking? Unfortunately, we are left without answers to many of our questions, but we do know that without the Filipino staff who joined Princeton’s students and faculty on their transcontinental adventures, the experience would have been much different for everyone on board.



Department of Geosciences Records (AC139)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

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