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Untangling the Prince Whipple Legend

Black soldier in the American Revolution

Prince Whipple was among 180 New Hampshire blacks who fought in the Revolutionary War. But was he at Valley Forge with George Washington? Historians now think not. So then why is the Internet filled with stories saying that he was? Well, that little rumor is partly out fault. Here’s how it all got started.and why we're glad it did.



MORE NH Black History

Author Robinson busted for spreading Internet rumors / SeacoastNH.comI confess. I did not start the rumors about Prince Whipple, but I certainly spread them far and wide. According to legend, an enslaved man from Portsmouth, New Hampshire was with Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge. I got the story ten years ago from historian Valerie Cunningham, who discovered it in the writings of historian William C. Nell. Nell heard about Prince Whipple while writing his breakthrough book Colored Patriots of the American Revolution that was published in 1855. This amazing volume chronicles the lives of black Revolutionaries who fought and died in the war that freed Americans from the shackles of British tyranny – white Americans, at least. Enslaved black veterans remained slaves.

Prince Whipple did accompany William Whipple of Portsmouth during the Revolution. William was one of three New Hampshire men to sign the Declaration of Independence. As a founding father, he has been elevated to a position of honor in American history. The Whipple family purchased Prince at auction when he was a child. Nell suggests that the boy was descended from royalty, but there is no way to verify that Prince was really a "prince" from Amabou, Africa. Prince was a name commonly given to slaves who were stripped of their African or Caribbean identity and assigned the owner’s surname. Classical names like Pompey, Caesar, Venus and Prince may have been a means of further segregating blacks in the household from their white "family" members.

Nell places William and Prince Whipple with Washington in the famous camp at Valley Forge. As everyone knows, Washington crossed the icy Delaware River secretly at night and defeated the British at Trenton in a turning point moment in the Revolution. As everyone also knows, there is a dramatic painting of that event. It has been hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for more than a century. Washington stands upright and unflinching in the boat, an American flag flying, as a dozen oarsmen battle the current and floating blocks of ice. In the gigantic 1851 painting by Emmanuel Leutze, the man rowing by Washington’s knee is black. Possibly, WC Nell suggested, the man is Prince Whipple of Portsmouth, NH.

William C Nell started the story in 1855I never actually said Prince was in the painting. I simply suggested in a 1997 essay that the man might be Prince. Although the melodramatic painting is by no means a factual depiction of the event, German artist Emmanuel Leutze was very concerned with the figures he placed in the boat. He chose to include a black figure because there were African Americans at Valley Forge. Although Leutze likely never heard the Prince Whipple story, there have been art critics and historians since who made the connection. Other slave names from other states have been suggested, but Prince Whipple has been the most popular. I simply jumped on the bandwagon back in ’97 and began waving the New Hampshire flag.

The article ran in a local newspaper an I posted the story on the Internet among hundreds of other essays. A few months later I got an email from historian Blaine Whipple who explained that, according to his exhaustive research, William Whipple was 130 miles away in Baltimore while Washington and 6,000 ragged, starving troops crossed the Delaware. I posted Blaine’s letter on my web site with a promise to correct my story. I didn’t get right to it. Life intervened. I finally fixed the details yesterday – about nine years later.


Whipple on the Interent

A lot happened in that decade. For one, the Web grew up. What used to be a slow clunky operation is now, for a great many computer users, quick and reliable. You can surf the Internet without wires from a cell phone. Literally millions of people have visited my web site, and the most popular section has been, you guessed it, Black History. Thousands of web sites cropped up offering facts about African American heritage to feed the ever-increasing interest in schools and colleges and historical societies and genealogy groups. Everyone was looking for black heroes and Prince Whipple was a natural. People were not shy about borrowing, often stealing the data I posted. Copyright is a fuzzy concept online.

When the search engine Google appeared in 1998, my Prince Whipple web page was drawn into the new canon of material. The content posted at my web site still comes up near the top of almost 300 million web pages categorized as "black history". In a search for Prince, at this writing, I come up as #1.

As years passed, the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail grew in status. Most of the stops on the walking tour are now marked by exquisite brass plaques. Valerie Cunningham wrote a resource guide for the trail, then expanded the information into the book "Black Portsmouth". In it, she and co-author Mark Sammons state clearly that Prince was probably not at Valley Forge. William Whipple would not likely have sent Prince 130 miles on his own to serve with Washington. Portsmouth legend "wrongly claims" that Prince is the figure in the famous painting, the authors note. But, they add, Prince was very likely with William Whipple in battles at Saratoga and in Rhode Island. And they remind us that there were at least 180 African Americans from New Hampshire serving in the Revolution, at a time when only 630 enslaved blacks – men, women and children – were living in the state.

Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Met / Photo by J. Dennis Robinson,

Although another legend says that William Whipple freed Prince after the war – he did not. Prince and others petitioned for their freedom. His came seven years later. Prince married, lived in Portsmouth and died in his mid-30s. He is buried in the Old North Cemetery. His little wooden cross was placed not far from the granite sarcophagus of William Whipple and the large tomb of revolutionary John Langdon. In 1905 Prince Whipple was recognized by local veterans as "New Hampshire's foremost, if not only colored representative of the war for Independence."

Blaine Whipple has also written a book that brings the often underrated Gen. William Whipple to life. In it he politely disputes the Prince Whipple legend. David Hackett Fischer, author of the popular book "Washington’s Crossing" says that many have attempted to identify figures in the famous painting with historical names, but without success. Fischer points to WC Nell’s reference to Prince Whipple, and dismisses the idea.

While some accounts dispute the Prince Whipple story, other scholars didn’t get the memo. In his lively account of George Washington and his slaves, "An Imperfect God", author Henry Wiencek clearly identifies the black soldier in the Leutze painting as Prince Whipple. Tourists who visit the historic park where Washington crossed the Delaware are told that Prince is "widely accepted" as the man in the painting. An article in a recent Portsmouth Herald states the same as fact. So, apparently, do hundreds, maybe thousands of essays by American school children.


An African American Revolutionary

Thanks to the unstoppable Internet, the Prince Whipple legend is now more deeply embedded in history than ever. His appearance in "Washington Crossing the Delaware" is noted in scholarly papers, on history web sites, in Wikipedia and on PBS. Often I am listed as the source of the information and often the articles note definitively that Prince Whipple is the man in the painting.

This is, after all, how history works. We study all the facts we can lay our hands on, then we take a flying leap at the truth. One historian relies on the work of another, then the next generation feeds on the work of the former. The real professionals track the story back to its roots. But most historians and journalists take the story as fact, recycle it, and move on. The Internet merely speeds up the process.

As a black abolitionist before the Civil War, William C. Nell was fighting to remind Americans, black and white, that African Americans had participated in the Revolution. We now know they also fought in the French and Indian War, even before the nation was founded. They died in great numbers in the Civil War. Nell was working in his book just when the hugely popular painting by Leutze went on display in 1851. More than 50,000 visitors paid to see the work in New York late that same year. It was sold for $10,000, an enormous sum at the time, and exhibited in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. A lot of people think big 19th century paintings are history. They aren’t. These grand, emotional, often corny and inaccurate paintings are art first, history second. To Nell’s joy, this powerful image contained one figure of a black man – a very visible symbol of the point he was making.

Nell was wrong, it seems, on this small forgivable detail. Emmanuel Leutze was not painting Prince Whipple. Historians point out that the artist also got the details of the longboats wrong. And the flag is not precisely correct, nor is Washington’s outfit. But Leutze would probably tell you that his goals were much grander. He was tapping into the patriotic spirit of America, a nation not yet a century old when "Washington Crossing the Delaware" went on display.

I saw the painting for the first time recently. I stood shockingly close, then walked backwards to take it all in, then moved up close again. The black figure in the boat rows nearly at eye level. Everyone except Washington strains at their oars. He is steady, fixed on the upcoming shore. Nothing here is real. Washington is really America. The men in the boats are Americans. The black man represents black America, struggling just to stay alive, overshadowed but present. He is every colored patriot who fought in the Revolution. And so, in a way, he really is Prince Whipple. The man in the painting is not Prince with the forensic accuracy required to place him in your school’s history textbook. But he is Prince in a simpler purer way that every human heart can understand.

Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of and a trustee of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.

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