William Henry Aspinwall

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William Henry Aspinwall
William Henry Aspinwall.jpg
Portrait of William Henry Aspinwall, by Daniel Hungtington, 1871
Born(1807-12-16)December 16, 1807
DiedJanuary 18, 1875(1875-01-18) (aged 67)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Resting placeGreen-Wood Cemetery
OccupationShipping magnate
OrganizationHowland & Aspinwall
Pacific Mail Steamship Company
Panama Canal Railway
Anna Lloyd Breck
(m. 1830)
ChildrenLloyd Aspinwall
Parent(s)John Aspinwall
Susan Howland

William Henry Aspinwall (December 16, 1807 – January 18, 1875)[1] was a prominent American businessman who was a partner in the merchant firm of Howland & Aspinwall and was a co-founder of both the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and Panama Canal Railway companies which revolutionized the migration of goods and people to the Western coast of the United States.[2]

Aspinwall was descended from, and related to, many prominent American families including the Roosevelts, Howlands, and Aspinwalls, that were heavily involved in the merchant trade business and politics, wielding vast power and ensuring wealth for generations.[3]

Early life[edit]

William Henry Aspinwall was born on December 16, 1807 in Manhattan, New York. He was the third of seven children born to John Aspinwall (1774–1847) and Susan Howland (1779–1852).[4] His father, who traveled extensively,[4] was associated with the dry goods merchant firm of Gilbert & Aspinwall.[5] His younger sister, Mary Rebecca Aspinwall (1809–1886) was married to Isaac Roosevelt, the grandfather of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[3] His maternal aunt, Harriet Howland, was the third wife of Isaac's father, New York State Assemblyman James Roosevelt.[6]

His maternal grandparents were Joseph and Lydia Howland.[6] The Howland family was descended from John Howland, a signer of the Mayflower Compact.[7] His cousin, Emily Aspinwall Howland, daughter of Samuel Shaw Howland, was married to Henry Chauncey, the son of Henry Chauncey, Esq., of Alsop & Chauncey in Valparaíso, and Lucy Wetmore Alsop,[8] the grandniece of Continental Congressman John Alsop.[9]: 13 

His paternal grandfather, Captain John Aspinwall, was one of the most prominent shipmasters of the New York merchant marine before the American Revolutionary War.[10] He was a member of the Aspinwall family who were well known in New York society and were descended from William Aspinwall, who was among the first settlers of New England.[1][11] Another relation, Sir Algernon Apsinwall, served as vice president and secretary of the West India Committee for forty years.[6][12]


The Sea Witch
View of Aspinwall, Panama, 1855

After obtaining a "substantial education" at local private schools,[10] Aspinwall began working as a clerk for G.G. & S.S. Howland, a merchant firm founded brothers Gardiner Greene Howland and Samuel Shaw Howland, who were younger siblings of Aspinwall's mother Susan,[6] a position he held until 1832.[1] The firm imported high-status goods such as porcelain, silk, tea, and opium[13] from China, and sold them to Americans of means.[6]

Howland & Aspinwall[edit]

In 1832, he became a partner in Howland & Aspinwall, along with his cousin William Edgar Howland, the son of founder Gardiner Howland. After assuming the presidency in 1835, he expanded trade to South America, China, Europe, the Mediterranean, and the East and West Indies. Howland & Aspinwall owned some of the most famous clipper ships ever built.[14] In 1845, while the firm owned the Ann McKim which was regarded as the fastest ship afloat, it built the Rainbow, which was even faster. The Rainbow was the high-tech racehorse of its day, and is considered to be the first of the extreme clippers. Instead of the bluff bow that was customary on ships up until that time, the Rainbow had a sharp bow, prompting on-lookers to joke that maybe she would sail better backwards. The next year, Howland & Aspinwall had the Sea Witch built, which set a speed record from China to New York which still stands.[15]

Panama Railroad schedule

Clipper ships sacrificed cargo capacity for speed, but in some markets, the fast service allowed their owners to charge premium rates (Tea from China tasted better if it was fresh, so the cargo on the first ship of the season to arrive in New York was worth more). Also faster speed meant that the vessel could complete more voyages in a given time period, which also helped make up for the diminished cargo capacity. The firm and its profits made Aspinwall very wealthy,[16] reportedly one of the richest men on the East Coast in the nineteenth century.[17]

Pacific Mail Steamship Company[edit]

In 1840s, William's younger brother John Lloyd Aspinwall succeeded him as president of Howland & Aspinwall so he could devote his time to transportation around the Isthmus of Panama.[6] In 1848, Aspinwall, along with Gardiner G. Howland and Henry Chauncey, founded the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, to provide service to California.[18] This turned out to be a rather good year in which to start a steamship line to California, since the Gold Rush started the next year. Howland & Aspinwall were also the recipients of a federal government subsidy to operate their trans-oceanic steamship line, against which they were forced to compete with the unsubsidized line owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt.[19] The company's first vessel to make the trip was packed with passengers. Pacific Mail eventually became American President Lines,[20] which is now part of Neptune Orient Lines.[21]

Panama Canal Railway[edit]

Following the Steamship Company, Aspinwall then promoted a railway in Panama. The project, which began in May 1850 and was later known as the Panama Canal Railway, was the first transcontinental railroad in the Americas and was built to provide a shorter and more secure path between the United States' East and West Coasts.[22] When completed in 1855, the line was designated as an "inter-oceanic"[23] railroad crossing as it connected ports on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The tropical rain forest terrain and outbreak of malaria and cholera, rendered its five-year construction, at a cost of $8,000,000, a considerable engineering challenge, and required more than seven thousand workers drawn from "every quarter of the globe."[24]

Later life and Civil War involvement[edit]

Aspinwall retired in 1856, but remained active as a philanthropist and spent considerable time improving his country estate near Tarrytown, New York,[10] which was later sold by his son to William Rockefeller, brother of John D. Rockefeller, for $150,000 in 1886 and became part of Pocantico Hills, New York.[25] He was elected as a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers on July 9, 1870.[10]

Although he never held office, Aspinwall, an admirer of George B. McClellan, was a participant at the "ill-fated" Peace Conference of 1861 in Washington.[13] Later, after the outbreak of the American Civil War, Aspinwall and John Murray Forbes were sent by the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, on a secret mission to England to obtain their "interference in the building and outfitting of iron-clads then in course of construction by Messrs. Laird"[1] intended for the Confederate States Navy. They were sent with millions of dollars in U.S. Bonds from the U.S. Treasury. While Forbes and Aspinwall did not persuade the British to buy the ships, their interference forced the British to detain the ships and conduct a lengthy investigation, essentially cutting off the supply of ships to the Confederate Navy.[1][13]

In 1866, he was a founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1869.[26][16] He owned works by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Antonio da Correggio, Diego Velázquez, Bartholomeus van der Helst, Teniers, Peter Paul Rubens, Philips Wouwerman, Cuyp, Ary Scheffer, Gerard, Dow, Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem, Titian, Adriaen Brouwer, Gerard ter Borch, Paul Veronese, Mieris, and Leonardo da Vinci, Romney, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Jean-Baptiste Madou.[27]

Personal life[edit]

In 1830, Aspinwall was married to Anna Lloyd Breck (1812–1885).[28] She was the daughter of Catherine Douce (née Israel) Breck (1789–1864) and George Breck (1784–1869), the brother of U.S. Representatives Samuel Breck and Daniel Breck.[29] Anna was the sister of Rev. James Lloyd Breck, an Episcopal missionary,[30] and Jane Breck, who married Aspinwall's brother John.[30] Together, William and Anna were the parents of:

  • Anna Lloyd Aspinwall (1831–1880), who in 1850 married architect James Renwick Jr. (1818–1895),[31] the son of Margaret Brevoort and James Renwick, an engineer, architect, and professor at Columbia College.[25]
  • Lloyd Aspinwall (1834–1886), who married Harriette Prescott D'Wolf (d. 1888), granddaughter of James DeWolf.[25]
  • Rev. John Abel Aspinwall (1840–1913), who married Julia Titus (1841–1876). After her death, he married Bessie Mary Reed (1843–1915)
  • Louisa Aspinwall (1843–1913), who married John Wendell Minturn (1839–1881), the son of merchant Robert Bowne Minturn
  • Katharine Aspinwall (1847–1924), who married Ambrose Cornelius Kingsland (1835–1890), the son of New York Mayor Ambrose Kingsland.

William Henry Aspinwall died of a myocardial infarction on January 18, 1875 in Manhattan.[1] He was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.[32]


The town of Aspinwall, Panama (now Colón), founded in 1850 and named after Aspinwall, on the 650 acres (2.6 km2) on the western end of a treacherously marshy islet covered with mangrove trees, known as Manzanillo Island.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Obituary: William H. Aspinwall" (PDF). New York Times. January 19, 1875. Retrieved December 16, 2008.
  2. ^ Levy, D.A. (February 14, 2004). "William Henry Aspinwall". The Maritime Heritage Project. Retrieved December 16, 2008.
  3. ^ a b Whittelsey, Charles Barney (1902). The Roosevelt Genealogy, 1649-1902. Hartford, Connecticut: Press of J.B. Burr & Company. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  4. ^ a b Aspinwall, John; Collins, Aileen Sutherland (1994). Travels in Britain, 1794-1795: the diary of John Aspinwall, great-grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with a brief history of his Aspinwall forebears. Parsons Press. p. 149. ISBN 9780963848765. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  5. ^ Barrett, Walter (1864). The Old Merchants of New York City, Second Series. New York: Carleton, Publisher. p. 337. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Kienholz, M. (2008). Opium Traders and Their Worlds-Volume One: A Revisionist Exposé of the World's Greatest Opium Traders. iUniverse. p. 403. ISBN 9780595910786. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  7. ^ "Roosevelt Genealogy". fdrlibrary.marist.edu. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved 18 October 2016.
  8. ^ Tuttle, George Frederick (1883). The Descendants of William and Elizabeth Tuttle: Who Came from Old to New England in 1635, and Settled in New Haven in 1639, with Numerous Biographical Notes and Sketches; Also, Some Account of the Descendants of John Tuttle, of Ipswich; and Henry Tuthill, of Hingham, Mass. ... Heritage Books. p. 435. ISBN 9781556135828. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  9. ^ Scott, Erving M. and Others, Evolution of Shipping and Ship-Building in California, Part I, Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, Volume 25, January 1895, pp.5-16; from quod.lib.umich.edu accessed March 10, 2015
  10. ^ a b c d American Society of Civil Engineers (1897). Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers. American Society of Civil Engineers. p. 598. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  11. ^ Aspinwall, Algernon Aikin (1901). The Aspinwall Genealogy. Rutland, VT: The Tuttle Co., Printers. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  12. ^ The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer. Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer Company. 1922. p. 49. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  13. ^ a b c Grady, John (July 26, 2013). "Forbes and Aspinwall Go to War". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 April 2021.
  14. ^ Blume, Kenneth J. (2012). Historical Dictionary of the U.S. Maritime Industry. Scarecrow Press. p. 227. ISBN 9780810856349. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  15. ^ Somerville, Col. Duncan S., The Aspinwall Empire, p. 22, Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., Mystic, CT, 1983.
  16. ^ a b Sora, Steven (2003). Secret Societies of America's Elite: From the Knights Templar to Skull and Bones. Simon and Schuster. p. 221. ISBN 9781594778674. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  17. ^ Hillstrom, Kevin; Hillstrom, Laurie Collier (2005). The Industrial Revolution in America: Iron and steel. ABC-CLIO. p. 83. ISBN 9781851096206. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  18. ^ "Testimonial to the Late William H. Aspinwall". The New York Times. January 21, 1875. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  19. ^ Stiles, T.J. (2009). The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-375-41542-5.
  20. ^ Niven, John, The American President Lines and its Forebears 1948-1984, p. 15, University of Delaware Press, Newark, NJ, 1987.
  21. ^ Elias, Rahita, Beyond Boundaries: The First 35 Years of the NOL Story, p. 8, Neptune Orient Lines Ltd., 2004.
  22. ^ "William Henry Aspinwall". www.panamarailroad.org. The Panama Railroad. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  23. ^ "A Great Enterprise" The Portland (Maine) Transcript [Newspaper], February 17, 1855.
  24. ^ Otis, F.N.,"Illustrated History of the Panama Railroad" (Harper & Bros., New York, 1861), p. 12, 35
  25. ^ a b c Hutto, Richard Jay (2005). The Jekyll Island Club Members. Indigo Custom Publishing. p. 15. ISBN 9780977091225. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  26. ^ "William Henry Aspinwall (1807-1875)". Trainweb. Retrieved December 16, 2008.
  27. ^ "Archives Directory for the History of Collecting". research.frick.org. Frick Art & Historical Center. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  28. ^ Garraty, John Arthur; Carnes, Mark Christopher; Societies, American Council of Learned (1999). American National Biography. Oxford University Press. p. 691. ISBN 9780195127805. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  29. ^ Fuller, Margaret (2001). My Heart is a Large Kingdom: Selected Letters of Margaret Fuller. Cornell University Press. p. 317. ISBN 0801437474. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  30. ^ a b Prichard, Robert W. (2014). A History of the Episcopal Church (Third Revised ed.). Church Publishing, Inc. p. 216. ISBN 9780819228772. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  31. ^ Johnson, Rossiter; Brown, John Howard (1904). The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans ... Biographical Society. p. 78. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  33. ^ "Aspinwall, Panama, Central America Seaport History during the 1800s". www.maritimeheritage.org. The Maritime Heritage Project. Sea Captains, Ships, Merchants, Merchandise, Immigration and Passengers. Retrieved 31 January 2018.

External links[edit]