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.)