Abraham Whipple (1733-1819) was a successful privateer and naval officer who was born in Providence, the son of Noah and Mary Whipple. Of humble origins, Whipple went to sea at an early age and became associated with the wealthy and influential Brown family of merchant entrepreneurs. During the French and Indian War, he served as a privateersman under the command of Esek Hopkins and then captained his vessel, the Gamecock, which captured twenty-three French vessels in 1759-60. In 1761, Whipple enhanced his status by marrying Hopkins’s daughter, Sarah, who bore him three children.
In June 1772, Whipple and John Brown led a party of Rhode Islanders in the scandalous and successful foray down Narragansett Bay to burn the English revenue schooner Gaspee, commanded by Lieutenant William Dudingston, which had run aground on Warwick’s Namquid Point while recklessly chasing the smaller packet ship Hannah, under the command of Captain Benjamin Lindsay. Lindsay docked in Providence, where news of the incident spread quickly. Led by merchant John Brown, the townsmen assembled in Sabin’s Tavern that evening to plot the Gaspee’s destruction.
The rebels embarked from Fenner’s Wharf in eight five-oared longboats under Whipple’s command. After midnight, the attack party reached the stranded ship, and following an exchange of shouts, James Bucklin shot and wounded Lieutenant Dudingston in the groin. The Providence men boarded the Gaspee, overpowered the crew, and burned the sloop and its contents. The incident sparked an exchange of notes between Whipple and Captain James Wallace, the commander of the HMS Rose, the flagship of the British squadron that patrolled Narragansett Bay to apprehend colonial smugglers. “You, Abraham Whipple, on June 10, 1772, burned his majesty’s vessel, the Gaspee, and I will hang you at the yardarm!” Wallace wrote, to which Whipple defiantly replied, “Sir, always catch a man before you hang him.”
A royal investigation of the burning yielded insufficient evidence to indict the perpetrators, who were shielded by their fellow townsmen despite a reward of up to one thousand pounds offered by King George himself for information leading to the conviction of the Gaspee raiders. But the Gaspee inquiry led to the establishment by rebels of legislative committees of correspondence throughout the colonies–a significant step on the road to the Revolution.
Whipple’s experience and reputation as a seaman and patriot made him the logical choice to command the two-vessel Rhode Island Navy when the General Assembly formed it in June 1775. His Rhode Island flagship, the sloop Katy, was then taken into the Continental Navy and renamed Providence, with Whipple still in command. Later, Whipple was given another ship, the Columbus, and joined his father-in-law, Esek Hopkins, in the American attack on the Bahamas in March 1776.
In 1778, Whipple took command of a new frigate, also called Providence, and outrunning the British blockade of Narragansett Bay, he made a successful voyage to France to deliver dispatches and to obtain valuable supplies of arms and uniforms. Whipple’s most famous wartime exploit occurred in July 1779, when the Providence was cruising in company with the Queen of France and the Ranger off the coast of Newfoundland. Early in the morning of July 18, through heavy fog, the Americans heard the sound of ship bells. Whipple soon realized that he had sailed into Britain’s Jamaica fleet, consisting of sixty vessels heavily laden with cargo. The three American ships ran up the British flag and then cut out eleven prizes, seven of which they brought safely to Boston, where they were sold at auction. It was the richest haul of the Revolution, and with the proceeds divided between the captors and the Congress, Whipple and his crew shared nearly one million dollars.
In December 1779, toward the end of the war, Whipple was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, to help defend it against British attack, and when the city fell on May 12, 1780, he was taken prisoner. Later released on parole for the duration of the war, he never resumed his duties as a naval officer. However, as a master in 1784, he sailed the first American flag vessel, the George Washington, into the River Thames in England. Whipple left Rhode Island in 1788 and headed west with James Mitchell Varnum to the Northwest Territory, where he settled on a farm in Marietta, Ohio, with his family.
Aside from a spectacular voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans and Havana in 1801, Whipple lived uneventfully in Marietta, dying there in 1819. He is buried along with Varnum in Marietta’s Mound Cemetery. The U.S. Navy has since honored him by naming three ships in his memory and by displaying his full-size portrait at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Captain Abraham Whipple was inducted into The Rhode Island Hall of Fame in 1973.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.