Dan Whipple - A Legend in His Own Time
"Uncle" Dan Whipple (photo courtesy of Traverse Area District Library)
One of the most colorful characters in Traverse City history was “Uncle” Dan Whipple. He didn’t arrive in Traverse City until he was ninety years old, but for the next nineteen years he became a familiar and beloved figure to everyone who knew him.
Dan Whipple was born in 1800 in western New York. According to Whipple himself, he was born into a line of long-lived, fierce warriors. His grandfather was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and lived to be 133 years old. His father fought in the War of 1812 and died at the age of 113. When he was 22 years old, he left New York and traveled west into the uncharted frontier beyond Chicago. He formed a partnership with a trapper and, for twenty years, he made a living in fur trapping and trading. Whipple told many stories of his adventures, including encounters with hostile Indians. Often fearing for their lives, the partners managed to survive many harrowing experiences.
In 1843, Whipple joined General John C. Fremont’s expedition. Through ten years of danger and hardship the two men became close friends. Also in 1843 Whipple teamed with Kit Carson and became an Indian scout. The two men hunted big game over a large area of the west and were often involved in skirmishes with bands of Indians. On several occasions they were taken captive but were always able to narrowly escape what seemed like certain death. During his forty years in the “wild west,” Whipple made six seperate trips over the Rocky Mountains.
When the Civil War began, Dan Whipple enlisted with the First Iowa Volunteers; he was 51 years old at the time and served for four years. Following the cessation of hostilities, Whipple apparently returned to fur trapping and trading. Little is known of his activities until 1892 when he was “discovered” by Traverse City men hunting in the marshes near Betsy Creek. The hunters had come upon a cabin on the woods with a strange looking old man, with long white hair and a beard to match, standing on the roof. They soon learned that he was Dan Whipple and he was ninety years old!
Whipple found a warm welcome from the citizens of Traverse City and moved into a home at Hatch’s Crossing, about seven miles from the village. He soon became a familiar figure in Traverse City and everyone called him "Uncle Dan." He was a man with great energy for his age. He would often be seen walking the seven miles into town, taking long, vigorous strides and using a stout walking stick.
Nineteen years later, on the morning of May 3, 1909, Dan Whipple breathed his last, and Traverse City mourned his passing. Although he had no living relatives, the village had adopted him and made him a part of a much larger family. Stories of his life were passed from one generation to the next. Uncle Dan Whipple was truly THE LEGEND among the Grand Traverse Legends.
An expanded version of Dan Whipple’s biography is featured in Volume III of the "Grand Traverse Legends" trilogy.
- Bob Wilson