Colonel Christopher Toppan

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By One of His Descendants

The New England Magazine, January 1886

In the May number of the Bay State for 1884 is an article on the promontory Boar's Head, and the adjoining town of Hampton, New Hampshire, which contains a mention of Colonel Christopher Toppan, who employed in his time many men there in boat and ship building, and in other branches of industry. He was a man so strongly marked in mind and character, and so identified with the local prosperity of his day and generation, that some further facts about him may be noted.

Christopher Toppan was the son of Dr. Edmund Toppan, a physician of Hampton, and the grandson of Dr. Christopher Toppan, a Congregational minister of learning and ability, settled from 1696 until his death, 1747, over the first church in Newbury, Mass. Christopher Toppan married Sarah Parker, daughter of Hon. William Parker of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and sister of Bishop Samuel Parker of Boston, so many years rector of Trinity Church.

The children of Christopher and Sarah Toppan were Abigail, who died unmarried at the age of ninety-six years; Sarah, who married Dr. Nathaniel Thayer, who had a long and able pastorate, severed only by his death, over the Unitarian Church in Lancaster, Mass.; Edmund Toppan, a lawyer who lived and died in Hampton, N.H.; Mary Ann, who married Hon, Charles H. Atherton of Amherst, N.H.

Of the grandchildren of Christopher Toppan may be mentioned Hon. Christopher S., son of Edmund Toppan, who lived and died a prominent merchant of Portsmouth, N.H. He left his salary as mayor so funded as to furnish every year a Thanksgiving dinner to the poor of the city. As that anniversary comes round, his name may be seen on the walls of the almshouse, with appropriate mottoes of gratitude, and his memory is fragrant to a class of citizens whom, in his life-time, he delighted to aid.

Among the children of Charles H. and Mary Ann (Toppan) Atherton was Charles Gordon Atherton, a lawyer of Nashua, N. H., who represented New Hampshire in Congress, for successive terms in the House and in the Senate. Every year but one from the time he was twenty-one, he had held political office until his sudden death at the beginning of Franklin Pierce's administration in which, had he lived, he would have had, doubtless, a prominent part. He was an ultra and zealous democrat, differing in this respect from the political faith of his fathers; and so strenuous was he in the advocacy of State rights that he introduced into Congress the twenty first rule against the right of petition -- a rule which the efforts of "The Old Man Eloquent," John Quincy Adams, caused to be rescinded. So obnoxious a measure fastened upon Atherton the nickname of Charles Gag Atherton; and many an anti-slavery writer in bitter philippic contrasted his course with that of his grandfather, Hon, Joshua Atherton, who, early in the history of New Hampshire, was an able and fearless advocate of the abolition of slavery.

Two of the sons of Dr. Nathaniel and Sarah (Toppan) Thayer were the well-known successful and liberal bankers, -- John Eliot and Nathaniel Thayer of Boston, -- whose wise and generous gifts to the Cause of liberal education give their names an honored place among the benefactors of the Commonwealth. A younger son, Rev, Christopher Toppan Thayer, was, for many years, a faithful and beloved pastor of the Unitarian Church in Beverly, Mass.

Christopher Toppan was not only shrewd and enterprising in his private business, but a pioneer in every project which would bone-fit the community around him. He assumed responsibilities, in vested money, and hired labor in building the turnpike and other public improvements. He was a leader in matters of religion and education as well as of secular interest. When the Congregational Church and Society of Hampton wished to build a meeting-house, the committee wrote him a letter stating the reasons why a certain valuable and centrally situated piece of land owned by him would be the most advantageous site for the proposed building. His reply was in the laconic style characteristic of his manner of doing good:—

GENTLEMEN, — If you want my land, you my have it.

He invited the clergyman to make it his home for a year at his house, thus removing some of the self-denials of an early settlement in a country parish. He did much toward the establishment of Hampton Academy, then a pioneer and very useful institution of the kind in that part of the State, and one at which Rufus Choate and other men of mark fitted for college. He offered to the preceptress also a home in his family, in order that a well-educated and refined woman might find it more pleasant and profitable to teach in the village. The hospitality of his house was proverbial. The old mansion still stands, a large, low, two-story yellow house, with long front and side yards, and a grassy lawn between them and the road, with massive, protecting elms, twice as high as the house in front and around it; spacious barns extend a little in the rear on one side, and a simple old garden of fruit, flowers, and vegetables on the other. This was originally one of the four garrison houses of the town in the old times of terror and defence from Indian incursions ; and it would be difficult to find now a more pleasant old-fashoned country house of equal age, with its physiognomy of generous hospitality and unobtrusive refinement and good sense.

Christopher Toppan was an influence in character as well as a stimulus in business to those around him. He taught them to save part of their earnings, to secure as early as possible a piece of land and a home. In few but pointed words he reproved thriftless and idle ways, and his respect and approbation were sought and valued. What Colonel Toppan said upon any matter was quoted and remembered as if it decided the question, long after men left his employment, and had an independence of their own. Nor was the gratitude for his aid and influence always confined to the first generation. Within a few years, two solid men of business sought out Hampton, and inquired especially for the house which formerly belonged to Col, Christopher Toppan. They visited the spot, and looked with reverence at the situation, the trees, the old house, and everything that belonged to it. Their grandfather had come to this country a poor and friendless boy, and at the age of twelve had been taken into the kitchen here to wait on the family. The patience with which his blunders had been borne, and the kindness with which he had been treated, he had rehearsed to his children's children. He was sent to school, and told be must learn to read and write and cipher if he wanted to be a man, but being a dull pupil he was often discouraged, and the Colonel used to call him into the sitting-room, as it was called, and teach him himself in the evening. He gave him a little money for certain extra services on condition he set it down on paper, and saved a little every month. Thus commenced the habits of industry, economy, and exactness which made the subsequent prosperity of the man, who used to recount to his grandsons his early poverty and hardship; the kind home he found, and dwell with grateful pleasure on every trait and habit of the Colonel. "Now, boys," he said, "be sure, when you grow up and can afford it, that you go into New Hampshire and see where I used to live as a boy, and if the house of Colonel and Madam Toppan is still standing, with the beautiful elms and all."

Verily the good men do springs up, they themselves know not where, and blesses, they know not whom.

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