Whipple, Prince (? - 1797), slave, Revolutionary War veteran, abolitionist...
Whipple, Prince (? - 1797), slave, Revolutionary War veteran, abolitionist, and jack-of-all-trades, was born, according to the historical record, in “Amabou, Africa.” This location is probably Anomabu in present-day Ghana, which was known as the Gold Coast when Prince Whipple was born. The names of his parents are unknown, but oral tradition published in the mid-nineteenth century implies he was born free and maintains he was sent abroad with a brother (or cousin) Cuff (or Cuffee), but parental plans went awry and the youths were sold into slavery in North America. A collective document Whipple signed with twenty others in 1779 describes their shared experience as being “torn by the cruel hand of violence” from their mothers’ “aching bosom,” and “seized, imprisoned and transported” to the United States and deprived of “the nurturing care of [their] bereaved parent” (New Hampshire Gazette, 15 July 1780).
Prince was acquired by William Whipple, and Cuff by William’s brother Joseph Whipple, white merchants in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. William Whipple’s household also included Windsor Moffatt and other slaves. There are several possible reasons for the confusion about whether Prince and Cuff were brothers or cousins: linguistic translation difficulties, uncertain community memory after their deaths, and white indifference to such distinctions in a marginalized race.
Likewise, Prince Whipple maintained that his given name reflected his actual status in Africa, although the numerous enslaved black men named Prince suggests the name was frequently given by white owners in sentimentality or mockery. If Prince’s name records his African status, it represents an infrequent case of resistance to white renaming, a practice that stripped away African identity and dissociated the enslaved from both the dominant society and their own humanity. However, the persistence of Cuff’s African name in a town where only a few other African names persisted lends some credence to this interpretation of Prince’s name.
Nineteenth-century tradition spins an elaborate tale of Prince’s participation in the American Revolution, fragments of which may be verified, disproved, or called into doubt. No documentation substantiates the claim that Prince accompanied William Whipple, a colonel in the First New Hampshire Regiment, on early revolutionary campaigns or to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776.
Documentation also argues against a tradition that Prince was with George Washington at the crossing of the Delaware River in December 1776. On that date, William Whipple was attending Congress, first in Philadelphia and then in Baltimore. Were Prince with him, it seems unlikely that William would have sent the enslaved Prince unaccompanied 130 miles to a war zone in which the enemy promised manumission in exchange for defection. The pervasive story about Prince’s crossing the Delaware first appears in William C. Nell’s 1855 Colored Patriots of the Revolution, written at the height of the abolitionist movement. It is unclear whether Nell recorded an undocumented but accurate family tradition circulating among Prince’s heirs or a confused family tale, or whether he symbolically attached to one individual the forgotten reality of black participation in both the Revolution and Washington’s crossing. Heroic paintings of this event by the nineteenth-century artists Thomas Sully (1819) and Emmanuel Leutze (1851) do indeed include a black man, illustrative of the lingering memory of black participation in the Revolution. New England traditions place other black men in Washington’s boat, for example Prince Estabrook of Lexington (later of Ashby), Massachusetts.
Prince Whipple did, however, participate in the Revolution. He accompanied William Whipple, by then a brigadier general, on military campaigns to Saratoga, New York, in 1777 and Rhode Island in 1778. Prince was attuned to revolutionary philosophy. In 1779 he and Windsor Moffatt were among twenty enslaved men who signed a petition to the New Hampshire legislature for the abolition of slavery in the state. All the signatories were held as slaves in prominent and politically active white patriot families, and thus had ample opportunity to overhear, contemplate, and reinterpret revolutionary rhetoric. However, the petition was tabled, and slavery was not formally abolished in New Hampshire until 1857.
After the Revolution, Prince attained freedom in gradual, if unclear, stages. On Prince’s marriage day, 22 February 1781, William Whipple prepared a special document that allowed Prince the rights of a freeman. The actual status conveyed by this document is obscure, as Prince was not formally manumitted until three years later, on 26 February 1784. The document may have been in response to a request from his bride’s clergyman owner, who may have wished to legitimize the marriage according to his religious standards. Prince’s bride, twenty-one-year-old Dinah Chase of New Castle and Hampton, New Hampshire, was manumitted by her owner on her wedding day.
In freedom, the black Whipples faced the daunting task of making a living in a context of social and economic marginalization. In his widow’s obituary, Prince was remembered as “the Caleb Quotem of the old fashioned semi-monthly assemblies, and at all large weddings and dinners, balls and evening parties. Nothing could go on right without Prince.” That is, he served as master of ceremonies at the Assembly House balls for white socialites. (Caleb Quotem was an eccentric, voluble character in The Review, or The Wags of Windsor , by the English playwright George Colman.) On various occasions, these balls included other black people as caterers and musicians, and it is likely that Prince’s role was to bring together this supportive talent. He was “a large, well proportioned, and fine looking man, and of gentlemanly manners and deportment” (Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, 22 Feb. 1846). William Whipple died one year after Prince’s manumission, and his widow carved a house lot out of the back corner of the pleasure garden behind the Whipple mansion and loaned it to their former slaves. Prince and Dinah, along with Cuff, who had been manumitted in 1784, and his wife Rebecca Daverson (married on 24 August 1786) moved an old house to the lot, where they and their children lived for forty years.
Their home life was crowded. In addition to the adults and first child who occupied the house when the 1790 census was taken, others were soon born, including Prince’s daughters, Esther and Elizabeth. In addition, Dinah operated the Ladies Charitable African School for black children, probably in their house, as well working for the North Church.
Prince died in Portsmouth in 1797, Cuff in 1816. Dinah’s obituary in 1846 described Prince’s earlier death as “much regretted both by the white and colored inhabitants of the town; by the latter of whom he was always regarded as their prince.” This reminiscence notwithstanding, Prince was not an officer of the Negro Court that held annual coronations in eighteenth-century Portsmouth. However, his signature on the abolition petition alongside those of Portsmouth’s black king, viceroy, sheriff, and deputy confirms Prince’s active participation in the local black community.
Prince was not buried in Portsmouth’s segregated Negro Burial Ground, suggesting that it may have been closed by the 1790s. Following local tradition for black people, his grave in North Burial Ground was marked with two rough stones. Its location was later identified by a grandson, John Smith, and a more impressive stone installed. Today it is marked as that of a Revolutionary War veteran. Prince’s age at death is unknown, but he was almost certainly a decade or more older than the age (forty-six) sometimes supposed.
Prince Whipple’s life characterizes white Portsmouth’s preference for the importation of enslaved children rather than adults, and also exemplifies his generation’s participation in and advocacy for a coherent black community. The loaned residence, extended family, and his heirs’ continuation in Portsmouth throughout much of the nineteenth century diverge from a local pattern of frequent changes of residence and of filial out-migration. Prince’s participation in the Revolution while enslaved may have been elaborated in folk memory. But, along with CRISPUS ATTUCKS, PRINCE HALL, SALEM POOR, among others, his story reminds us of the significant African American contribution to the American struggle for independence.
Kaplan, Sidney. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770 - 1800 (1973).
Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780 - 1860 (1998).
Nell, William C. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855).
Piersen, William D. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England (1988).
Sammons, Mark J., and Valerie Cunningham. Black Portsmouth (2003).
Mark J. Sammons