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John Paul Jones

one of the most successful American naval captains during the Revolutionary War, and commander of the first U.S. ship to fly the "Stars and Stripes"

John Paul Jones

John Paul was born in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, on July 6, 1747. Apprenticed to a merchant at the age of 13, he went to sea as a cabin boy aboard the brig Friendship, aboard which he voyaged between Whitehaven, England, and Barbados with cargoes of consumer goods and/or sugar. The apprenticeship ended when his master went bankrupt in 1766.

John Paul next spent two years as chief mate of a Jamaican slaver brig, before taking passage at Jamaica on a brigantine bound for Scotland. Both the master and chief mate of the brig died of fever during the passage. John Paul brought the ship safely home, and was subsequently named master of the John -- at the age of 21.

In 1770, while at Tobago, he had a crew member flogged for laziness. That crewman later deserted the John, shipped on another vessel, and died a few months later. Upon reaching Scotland in November, John Paul was arrested and charged with murdering the crewman. Released on bail, he sailed for the West Indies.

In September 1772, John Paul purchased the Betsy, a merchant ship, and made several voyages to Tobago. In December 1773, while docked at Tobago, he decided to invest money in return cargo rather than pay his crew for their shore leave. One sailor responded by attacking John Paul, who was forced to kill the man in self defense. Friends convinced him that he would not receive a fair trial in Tobago, so he added "Jones" to his name, left Tobago, and eventually ended up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The outbreak of the Revolutionary War gave Jones an opportunity to return to the sea, and on December 7, 1775, he became First Lieutenant of the Alfred, the first naval ship bought by the Continental Congress. In March 1776, Jones' familiarity with the Bahamas contributed to the bloodless capture of New Providence and a considerable store of ordnance. He was appointed to command the sloop Providence on May 10, 1776, and commissioned captain on August 8, 1776. During a cruise lasting six weeks and five days, the Providence twice outwitted British frigates (the Solebay and Milford); manned and sent in eight prizes (6 brigantines, 1 ship and 1 sloop); and sank or burned eight more (6 schooners, 1 ship and 1 brigantine). In November he transferred to the Alfred with his entire crew, and by December 15 the Alfred had managed to take five more prizes.

On June 14, 1777, the same day the "Stars and Stripes" was selected as the national emblem, Congress appointed Jones to the newly built Ranger, and that ship became the first to fly the new national flag. On February 14, 1778, French Admiral La Motte-Picquet returned Jones' salute at Quiberon Bay (France), the first time the Stars and Stripes were recognized by a foreign power. The Ranger spent the next several months plying the waters between Great Britain and France, taking a number of prizes. The most spectacular battle occured on April 24, 1778, when the Ranger captured the British sloop of war Drake; the Ranger lost eight men in the battle, while the Drake lost forty-two.

Early in 1779, the French gave Jones command of an old French East Indiaman which he named the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin. On August 14, the Richard, leading a squadron of four other ships and two French privateers, began another series of raids on British shipping. On September 23, the squadron intercepted the Baltic merchant fleet under convoy of the British ships Serapis and Countess of Scarborough off Scarborough, England. Jones engaged the larger and better-equipped Serapis, and for three and a half hours the vessels lay yard arm to yard arm, with the French ship Alliance twice circling them and firing indiscriminately into both. At one point in the battle the captain of the Serapis called for Jones' surrender, to which he made this now-famous reply: "I have not yet begun to fight!" By the time the Serapis surrendered she was on fire, and the Bonhomme Richard was in danger of sinking. Jones transferred his crew and command to the Serapis, and the squadron returned to France with its prizes (the Countess of Scarborough having been taken by another ship of the squadron). For his victory, King Louis XVI gave him a gold-hilted sword and made him a chevalier of France.

the Bonomme Richard and the Serapis
the Bonomme Richard and the Serapis

Jones continued his campaign against British ships through 1780, but had limited success following his victory over the Serapis. He returned to the United States in 1781, received the thanks of Congress, and was given command of the America, which was still under construction. Before he could take command, however, the America was given to France to replace a ship lost in Boston Harbor. A move to promote him to Rear Admiral was defeated, and Jones spent the remainder of the war serving as a volunteer in a French fleet sailing the West Indies, seeing virtually no action.

In 1783, Jones was sent to France to negotiate prize money claims. In 1787, he was awarded a gold medal by Congress, and then dispatched to Denmark to seek restitution for two prizes that that nation had returned to England.

While in Denmark, acting on advice from Thomas Jefferson (then ambassador to France), Jones accepted an offer from Catherine the Great and entered the Russian Navy as a Rear Admiral. Although he successfully commanded the Black Sea Squadron, his victories were credited to others and his subordinates were often encouraged to dispute his authority. In March 1789, he was accused of criminal assault on a young girl and Catherine "granted" him a leave of absence.

Returning to Paris in 1790, Jones spent his final years in poor physical and emotional health. When he died, on July 18, 1792, he was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Louis Cemetery for Protestants.

In 1905, more than a century after his death, the cemetery in which Jones had been buried was uncovered during the course of a construction project. After his body was identified, Jones' remains were returned to the United States and re-buried with honors in a specially-built crypt at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, where they remain today.

See Also

Benjamin Franklin
King Louis XVI
Thomas Jefferson

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The Robinson Library >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on September 23, 2018.