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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