African Americans are rarely depicted in nineteenth-century paintings, unless they were shown as servants. Emanuel Leutze's familiar and dramatic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) is no exception. Many viewers of the work would focus on General Washington standing at the bow without noticing the leaning, straining boatman pictured behind the general's right leg. Legend has it that that African American man depicted rowing at Washington's knee is an actual figure from history, the slave named Prince Whipple. Scholarship and documentation tell another story, but the debate has continued for more than 150 years. His place in Revolutionary artwork may be dubious, but Prince was indeed a Revolutionary War veteran and abolitionist.
Accurate records for slaves are scarce. Mostly, they show up in their owner's wills, as property being left to heirs. But historical accounts place Whipple's birthplace in a village in Amabou, Africa, which was probably Anomabu in present-day Ghana, known as the Gold Coast when Prince Whipple was born, in the mid-1700s. His parents' names are unknown, but oral history suggests Whipple was born free and affluent and was sent abroad with a brother (or cousin) named Cuff (or Cuffee), two years his junior, to study in America. Instead, the youths were sold into slavery in North America. First sold in Baltimore, the boys were then purchased and renamed. Prince was purchased by William Whipple and Cuff by William's brother Joseph. The two were white merchants in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Prince Whipple maintained that his name reflected the actual status he had left behind in Africa, which could very well be true. But many slaves were dubbed "Prince" mockingly by their owners.
Accompanies Master to War
An account of Whipple's experience exists in the form of a collective document Whipple and twenty other slaves signed in 1779 that describes 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," according to Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham in Black Portsmouth.
As with his name and origins, time and dubious reporting have left almost everything about Whipple's life open to question. It is known that William Whipple was a prominent member of Portsmouth society who would later represent New Hampshire by signing the Declaration of Independence. It is also known that William Whipple was a colonel in the First New Hampshire Regiment, who later became a brigadier general in the Revolutionary War. Some accounts suggest that he took his slave with him into battle. "During the American Revolution some of the most ardent Patriots could be found among the colonies' African-American residents," writer Jon Swan noted in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal Of Military History. However, historians overlooked the African Americans who participated in the American Revolution "until it was popular to include them."
Legend Results from Confusing Records
Prince Whipple's legend may have been part of this trend to include African Americans in later versions of Revolutionary history. History written decades after the war tell of Prince's participation in the American Revolution, but no documentation from the war substantiates the claim that Prince accompanied William Whipple on early revolutionary campaigns or to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776.
According to Sammons and Cunningham, the documentation argues against Prince's place in the boat 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 his slave unaccompanied 130 miles to a war zone. Prince's place in the Delaware River story first appears in William C. Nell's 1855 Colored Patriots of the Revolution, written at the height of the abolitionist movement. This volume was taken as factual for 150 years. Even in the early 2000s, such reference sources as PBS's Africans in America, various encyclopedias, and dozens of printed and electronic sites present Nell's information as historical truth.
Sammons and Cunningham suggest that Nell could have recorded an undocumented but accurate family tradition from Prince's heirs, a confused family tale, or attached Prince to the story to make up for previously overlooked black participation in the revolution. Leutze's painting (1851) does indeed include a black man, but New England traditions place other black men in Washington's boat, for example, Prince Estabrook of Lexington, Massachusetts. Moreover, enough time and geography were between the historical events and Leutze's painting to put accuracy at risk.
Leutze Paints Crossing with License
Leutze was born in Germany, and though he came to America with his parents at an early age, he spent half his life abroad. In fact, not only was Washington Crossing the Delaware painted seventy-five years after Washington's actual crossing of the river, but it was painted in Germany, where Leutze used live models. The work now hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where art historian Natalie Spasskey accepts the theory that the African American depicted is Prince Whipple.
Evidence bears out that Prince Whipple was involved in the revolution. He accompanied William Whipple, by then a brigadier general, on military campaigns to Saratoga, New York, in 1777 and to Rhode Island in 1778. There is also proof that Prince Whipple was steeped in revolutionary thinking. Prince was among twenty enslaved men, including Windsor Moffat, who signed a 1779 petition for the abolition of slavery in New Hampshire. Prince, Moffat, and the other signatories were slaves in prominent and politically active white patriot families and were thus privy to the revolutionary rhetoric coming from their owners' dining tables and parlors. Their petition was shelved, however, and slavery was not abolished in New Hampshire until 1857.
Gains Emancipation Years after War
Colored Patriots of the Revolution states that William Whipple emancipated Prince as a reward for his war service. The fact is Prince did not actually gain his freedom until seven years after the war. Prince married Dinah Chase of New Castle and Hampton, New Hampshire, on February 22, 1781. For the event, William Whipple prepared a special document that allowed Prince the rights of a freeman, but Prince was not formally emancipated until three years later. The document may have been drawn up at the behest of Chase's owner, a clergyman who emancipated Chase on her wedding day. Sammons and Cunningham suggest the tale of Prince being freed for his war service was told "as an increasingly abolitionist local white society preferred to remember it."
Free life was daunting for the Whipples. Though slavery had been formally abolished, there was little room in white society for recently freed slaves. Prince served as master of ceremonies at Assembly House balls for white socialites. Given recollections about his fine manners and general deportment, Prince was suited for the role. These events occasionally included other blacks as caterers and musicians, and it seems that Prince also acted as a liaison and manager of the black help for the white hosts.
William Whipple died one year after Prince's emancipation, and Whipple's widow allowed Prince and Dinah to live in a house on a lot behind her mansion. Prince, Dinah, their daughters, Esther and Elizabeth, Cuff, and Cuff's wife Rebecca Daverson, and their children crowded in to the house and lived there for forty years. Dinah also operated the Ladies Charitable African School for black children out of the house and worked for the North Church.
Mourned by Portsmouth Blacks and Whites
Documents show that Prince was not involved with Portsmouth's Negro Court, but 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's age was never known, but Sammons and Cunningham suggest he was probably at least a decade older when he died in 1797 than the age of forty-six sometimes supposed.
Prince was not buried in Portsmouth's segregated Negro Burial Ground, which may have been closed by the time he died. His grave in the North Burial Ground was marked with two rough stones until a grandson, John Smith, installed a more impressive stone. It is marked as that of a Revolutionary War veteran.
Kaplan, Sidney. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770-1800. Washington D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, 1975.
Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780-1860. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Nell, William C. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. New York: Arno Press, c. 1968.
Piersen, William D. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
Sammons, Mark J., and Valerie Cunningham. Black Portsmouth. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2004.
McQuaid, Cate. "Was N.H. Slave Depicted in This Painting?" Boston Globe, 7 April 2002.
Swan, Jon. "America's Forgotten Patriots." MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Autumn 2000.
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