Rushing Through Panama: The Story of William J. Topping

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“Rushing Through Panama: The Story of William J. Topping” by Jack Topping.

[10 September 2018]

Of all the years in American history, the year of 1849 reflects the possibility of adventure and the prospects of prosperity more than any other. The main event of that decade was the California Gold Rush, which was the mass movement of citizens across the United States seeking gold throughout the California area. Among the thousands of brave souls deciding to travel for their share of riches, one of them was a younger gentleman named William Jones Topping from New York. The son of Stephen H. Topping, a War of 1812 veteran, William was born in Bridgehampton, New York in 1817 to a family rich in American history, specifically in the Long Island and Connecticut areas.

William was employed as a whaler in the Sag Harbor region of New York in his twenties and thirties. As a naturally adventurous soul, he was determined to take fate into his own hands and follow the footsteps of many Americans before him headed to California. Traveling across the world to vast lands such as the “Sandwich Islands” as a whaler, he kept extensive records on his personal feelings, health and surroundings in letters home to his family in New York. These letters, spanning from 1845 to his Gold Rush journey in 1849, were preserved and passed down from generation to generation in his family.

The letters William wrote provided a necessary and vital look into daily life on such a rigorous journey. Although spelling and grammar may have changed over the course of the past few centuries, his letters are composed gracefully and with a clear purpose. While he may have considered his letters to be educational in nature in 1849, the historical and educational content he provided is now more valuable than ever in 2018.

Like many of the individuals who decided to make the trek, William made it clear that going to California was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was a chance to truly provide for himself and his family, a chance to break the status quo, and a chance to fully control his future. As the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service wrote in their program about the Gold Rush, they explain how the society William lived in was “increasingly based on wage labor”, and that the “idea that a person could alter his destiny by collecting gold off the ground proved irresistible”. For William, his “wage labor” situation was the overpopulated whaling industry on Long Island, and that an adventure to California to find a new career in gold mining was the “irresistible” opportunity he so craved.

In a letter dated 15 December 1849 sent to his brother, Abraham, William discusses his situation on board a steamer over capacity headed to Panama, the native Panamanian population, and the prevalence of American currency in Panama itself. What this letter provides is an interesting look into the “intermission” of the overall journey, with sailing the Atlantic and then the Pacific acting as the “main features” of the voyage. To the modern collector, many realize the historical association or significance a coin can have. For the Gold Rush era, the emphasis on coinage from that time period is mostly reflected with the name of the event itself: Gold. Fractional, Territorial or U.S. Assay Office gold coins from the 1840’s and 1850’s are a hallmark of that era, yet the coins or currency used by travelers getting to California in that time period are often overlooked, in terms of historical significance.

“Dear Brother” he began to write. “I wrote to you from Havana giving you an account of my voyage up to that time we arrived there on the 19th and sailed on the 20th giving the passengers time to go on shore to take a strole.” He further added in his introduction, “There was a great deal of grumbling among the passengers about being transferred to the FALCON as she had about 250 passengers of her own from New Orleans and then taking 300 more of us made a perfect ham on board.”

William’s writing, while completely nonchalant and easy going in his opening, further describes his whereabouts and traveling situation up until his encounter with the native population of Panama. He points out how the Panamanian people were thrilled with and preferred American coins and currency over Spanish currency. “The natives are very friendly. They would lay down mats in the huts and charge you a dime for lodging and furnish you with hot coffee for a half a dime a cup” he wrote.  He further pointed out, “Dimes and half dimes are their favorite coin and they will take it in preference to a Spanish shilling. I can readily believe that there are more dimes in circulation on the Istmuth than there is in the City of New York.”

Although he never specified the particular variety or dates of the coins he carried, it is most likely he had different denominations of the U.S. Seated Liberty coins, such as Seated Liberty half dimes ($0.05), Seated Liberty dimes ($0.10), Seated Liberty quarters ($0.25), Seated Liberty half dollars ($0.50), and Seated Liberty dollars ($1.00). As for the Spanish shilling William mentioned, he most likely was referencing the Spanish real, a type of silver coin very popular in North and Central America, including the United States. Up until the Coinage Act of 1857 went into effect, foreign coins such as the Spanish real (commonly called the Spanish “pillar dollar”) or Mexican issued currency were considered legal tender in the United States. 

It is possible the native Panamanian population preferred American coins due to the fineness and weight of the silver content over Spanish coinage. According to William, the Panamanian hosts even preferred American gold Eagles over other gold coins, and traded them for other American coins, saying, “They exchange American gold here at what they call 10 per cent. They will give you 11 dollars for an Eagle at the rate of eight dimes to the dollar and that is the best you can do.”

Towards the end of his letter he said his farewells, offered up thanks to his siblings for continued correspondence, and signed off saying, “Give me all the particulars about G. (most likely his wife Julia Georgette) and Charley (his young son). Thanks, my dear sister for your kind letter and I hope I shall profit by it. I never discovered until I arrived here”, further adding, “Kiss that dear boy and tell him it is for me. My love to you all and your esteem shall never be forgot. Your most affectionate, W. J. Topping.”

Shortly thereafter William added a particularly interesting postscriptum, or P.S., about the muddy terrain, saying, “P.S. In crossing the Istmuth I came up up with an old woman, 60 years old. Her son was with her and she was up to her knees in mud half the time but took it all in good part.” He went on to write his last few words, “After that I did not complain about the road. Huzza for California, I shall write again at the first opportunity.”

Unfortunately, William was never able to write to his family again. For the last few weeks of December, William contracted Malaria while in Panama and never recovered. He died on January 1st, 1850 and was buried at sea in the Pacific. Although he never made it to California, his willingness to sacrifice everything in order to achieve his goal was totally and wholly unwavering. Like many of the men, women, children and families that took part in the hardships of Gold Rush migration, William J. Topping experienced those difficulties first hand. In the end, William will be remembered as an individual of great strength. He was someone who accepted the dangers of this voyage without hesitation, all in the name of providing a better future for his family in the present, and for his family in generations to come.

 

The full transcription of William J. Topping’s December 15, 1849 letter as well as scans of the original document can be found here, exclusively on JET Numismatics.

Note: William J. Topping is the fourth great grandfather of author and JET Numismatics editor Jack Topping.

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Transcription of William J. Topping’s Panama Letter, December 15, 1849

Editor’s note: This transcription was first transcribed in the 1960’s by Charles E. Topping, Sr. This second edition was electronically transcribed by Jack Topping and includes spelling and grammatical corrections from errors found in the first edition. Certain words or sentences (including spelling and grammar errors) are preserved as found in the original document. All four scans of the original document are provided here exclusively on JET Numismatics for the first time in a digital format at the bottom of the page. This transcription was published on 10 September 2018.

 

PANAMA- Dec. 15, 1849

Dear Brother-

I wrote to you from Havana giving you an account of my voyage up to that time we arrived there on the 19th and sailed on the 20th giving the passengers time to go on shore to take a strole. There was a great deal of grumbling among the passengers about being transferred to the FALCON as she had about 250 passengers of her own from New Orleans and then taking 300 more of us made a perfect ham on board but however we got thru it very well and landed in CHAGRES on the 25th of NOV. but I would recommend all persons coming this way to pay the odd 16 dollars and take the other line of steamers. I stopped at CHAGRES three days as the canoes had gone up the river with passengers of the Alabama of New Orleans and the Crescent City. Board at Chagres was one dollar per meal and 50 cents for lodging. Mr. Moore who I spoke of in my other letter found an old acquaintance in the Capt. of the small steamer which takes the passengers ashore from the steamship. He invited us to sleep on board while we remained in CHAGRES and by buying my bread and meat from the natives I made out to live quite reasonable. On the 28th ten of us hired a canoe for $10.00 apiece and started up the river and arrived at CRUSSES on the 1st of December being 3 days going up which is about average passage though they come down in one day.

The current runs down here about 4 to 7 knots and the scenery on the river excels anything I have ever seen regards to beauty. We stop every night on the river, there being small settlements on the banks of the the river all the way up. The natives are very friendly. They would lay down mats in the huts and charge you a dime for lodging and furnish you with hot coffee for a half a dime a cup. Dimes and half dimes are their favorite coin and they will take it in preference to a Spanish shilling. I can readily believe that there are more dimes in circulation on the Istmuth than there is in the City of New York. They exchange American gold here at what they call 10 per cent. They will give you 11 dollars for an Eagle at the rate of eight dimes to the dollar and that is the best you can do but as dimes is as good as shillings here it does very well. Dimes is the money to bring out to spend on the Istmuth but for passage to San Fran you must pay American currency.

To go on with my journey, on the 2nd of Dec. we hired some natives to take our baggage across to Panama which they do on their backs. Many of them will take 150 pounds on their backs and walk to Panama with as little exertion as one of us light. I paid my man 8 dollars to take my trunk over which is with what 10 dollars up the river brings my passage to 18 dollars their currency which is much less than I expected. We left CRUSSES at 12 M and arrived at Panama the next day at 3 P.M. and it beats all roads that I ever walked on I assure you, but still not so bad as I expected to find it from the description the Californians gave of it. I must go back to CHAGRES again to tell you about the Californians that were waiting there for the steamer to sail on their way home. They told all kinds of stories, some good and some bad. One would tell you to go ahead and one would say if he had a brother he would sooner see him die than go to California, and so it is, one will speak in the highest praise and another will run it down to the lowest mark. At all events they frightened about 50 so  they went back on the steamer they came on. The question was asked me several times, are you going back, my answer was not so long as I can go ahead.

The next day after my arrival in Panama, I was so lame that I could hardly get about but a day or two made things all right again. Since then I have had a turn of diareah which I soon drove out with a dose of Brandreth pills and my health is now good. The first day I got here I put up at the America Hotel. The next day a company of us hired a room for which we pay one dime each per day and each man finds himself so it costs us about 4 dimes per day to live. There is not the least chance of us getting away from here in a steamer as steerage tickets in the steamers sell for 400 dollars and run as high as 700 dollars. All that are sold here are brought here by passengers who sell them and go on by sailing vessel of which there is a number here at present. The price is 200 and 175 dollars in the steerage and the prospect is that the price will go higher if the rush continues. I have bought my ticket on the ship Charleston of New York for 175 dollars.

I tried to get a chance to work my passage up but it was no use as there were about 1300 passengers here when we arrived and the FALCON’s swollen into 1800 though they are thinning out fast now as there has 4 vessels sailed since I arrived and 4 more to sail this month which will take all that have the means and want to go. There are a good many here who have gambled their money away and are now penniless. It is carried on here to a great extent. My ship sails the first of January and will probably get there in March and the Californians all agree in saying that you ought not to get there before that time. If I had known as much as before I left as I do now I should have gone by the way of Cape Horn.

I have got a job at COOPERING which will last me, I think until I got away, making water casks for the ships at 3 dollars per day. I commenced yesterday on them. I was talking to a gentleman yesterday from California who was there all last summer. He arrived here 2 months ago, bought a vessel, filled her with passengers and sent her to California. He said that it is the only place in the world where a laboring man gets paid for his labor and with health and industry is sure to do well. That is the opinion of many that I have talked to while others say to the contrary so all I have to do is to go on and see for myself. I will expect to find 2 or 3 letters at San Francisco when I arrive there next March. Give me all the particulars about G. and Charley. Thanks, my dear sister for your kind letter and I hope I shall profit by it. I never discovered until I arrived here. Kiss that dear boy and tell him it is for me. My love to you all and your esteem shall never be forgot,

Your most affectionate

W. J. Topping

P.S. In crossing the Istmuth I came up up with an old woman, 60 years old. Her son was with her and she was up to her knees in mud half the time but took it all in good part. After that I did not complain about the road. Huzza for California, I shall write again at the first opportunity.

WICK – I think you had better wait until you hear from me after I get to my journeys end and then you will have something you can depend on.

(Editor’s Note: “G.” was probably his wife, Julia Georgette. “Charley” was his son, Charles Washburn Topping. “Wick” was his brother in law, Wickham Isaacs.)