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Untangling the Prince Whipple Legend

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.


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Thursday, December 14, 2017 
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