Born as John Paul Jr. on the southern coast of Scotland, whose father (John Paul Sr.) was a gardener at Arbigland estates, his mother was Jean Duff. His maritime career began at the age of 13 when he sailed out of Whitehaven (northern English county of Cumberland) as an apprentice aboard the HMS Friendship under Captain Benson. His older brother moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia in colonial America after marrying.
John Paul Jones Apprenticeship in British Navy
J.P. Jones sailed aboard several British merchant and slaver ships, including the HMS King George in 1764 as third mate, and first mate of Two Friends in 1766. Only briefly did he sail with slave traders because the cruelty in the slave trade disgusted him. He quit his position aboard the Two Friends in 1768 while docked in Jamaica, where he found passage aboard another ship back to Scotland. The next ship he sailed with was the brig John that sailed from Scotland in 1768, but found himself suddenly thrust into leadership when the captain and first mate died of yellow fever. After successfully navigating the ship back to Scotland port, he was rewarded by being made master of John and its crew with a payment of 10% of its cargo. [i] He sailed in two voyages to the West Indies and during the second voyage in 1770, he found himself being charged for being unnecessarily cruel when he flogged one of the sailors in a disciplinary action. The charges were dismissed, but his reputation took a down turn when the sailor he flogged died a few weeks later. His reputation was ruined and there is disagreement among historians as to whether he was arrested or not.
John then left Scotland and took command of a vessel out of London called the Betsy, and commanded the ship for 18 months in commercial activities in Tobago. That command came to an end when John killed a crew member with a sword, a mutineer by the name of Blackton, over a dispute over wages. [ii] Claiming that the incident was self defense, John decided to leave England and go to Fredericksburg, Virginia where his brother had died and left his fortune behind. It was during this time John Paul added the surname of Jones, thereafter known as John Paul Jones. Tradition in folklore of North Carolina is that he adopted the name Jones in honor of Willie Jones of Halifax, North Carolina. [iii]
John Paul Jones Career in the American Navy
Soon after, John joined the newly formed Continental Navy to fight against Britain in Philadelphia as one of the first naval officers in 1775; being endorsed byRichard Henry Lee and influential members of the Continental Congress gave him the rank of 1st Lieutenant in the Continental Navy on December 7, 1775, aboard the USS Alfred. Sailing from the Delaware River in February 1776 the mission was to attack British merchant vessels in New Providence. Jones had the honor of hoisting the first US ensign over a naval vessel, which was the Grand Union Flag, later to become the Flag of the United States.
Meanwhile Congress had ordered that 13 frigates be constructed and First Lieutenant Jones was to command one of them, Jones was then commissioned as captain of the USS Providence. The ship sailed for six weeks and during that time Jones captured sixteen British ships and created much damage off the coast of Nova Scotia.
Commodore Esek Hopkins gave Jones a mission to liberate hundreds of American prisoners who were forced to labor in coal mines in Nova Scotia and at the same time raid British shipping. On November 1st, 1776, Captain Jones sailed in Alfred to carry out the mission that resulted in the capture of the HMS Mellish that provided supplies and winter clothing for troops in Canada.
On December 16th, 1776, Captain Jones arrived in Boston after a successful mission; however, after an argument over advancement and campaign planning with Commodore Hopkins, Jones was assigned to a smaller, newly constructed vessel, the USS Ranger on June 14th, 1777, which was the same day that the Stars and Stripes was adopted as the official US flag. Jones sailed for France on November 1st, 1777 with orders to assist American naval operations there where he was afforded the opportunity to relay his strategic ideas to Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Arthur Lee. They promised him the command of a new vessel under construction in Amsterdam, the L’Indien. Britain was able to divert the sale of the vessel to France, who had not yet officially allied with America yet, so Captain Jones was left without a command. Captain Jones during this waiting period became close friends withBenjamin Franklin, for whom he admired and accepted the offer to join with Mr. Franklin in the Masonic Lodge Les Neuf Soeurs.
On February 6th, 1778, France signed the Treaty of Alliance with America, which formally recognized the new nation as a republic and eight days later Captain Jones, aboard theRanger, became the first American Navy vessel to be saluted by the French with a nine-gun salute fired from Admiral Piquet’s flagship. Jones wrote about the historical event and stated:
I accepted his offer all the more for after all it was a recognition of our independence and in the nation. [iv]
On April 10th, 1778, Captain Jones and his crew set sail from Brest, France to the western coasts of Britain. After successful raids against British merchant shipping in the Irish Sea, Captain Jones convinced his crew on April 17th, 1778 to participate on the assault against Whitehaven, [v] where his maritime career began. Unfortunately heavy winds forced them to abandon the operation and the Ranger sailed towards Ireland where more British ships were attacked. On April 20th, 1778, Captain Jones learned from captured British sailors that the Royal Navy sloop-of-war, HMS Drake, was anchored off Carrickfergus, Ireland.
In the diary of Dr. Ezra Green, ship’s surgeon, Captain Jones intended to attack the British ship in daylight, but his sailors were against it, [vi] so the attack took place at midnight. The crew member who was responsible for dropping the anchor alongside the Drake for the attack, misjudged the timing, or as was mentioned in John Paul Jones’ memoirs, the crewmember was drunk; and Captain Jones ended up cutting the anchor cable and slipped away into the night. [vii] The wind shifted and the Ranger crossed the Irish Sea to make another attempt at raiding Whitehaven. Captain Jones led the assault with his crew in two boats with fifteen men on April 23rd, 1778, just after midnight, in hopes to set all the 200 to 400 ships anchored in the harbor afire. They also hoped to terrorize the townspeople by setting fires in the town. The wind shifted and the ebb tide was strong as they rowed to shore and they managed to spike the town’s defensive guns to prevent them from being fired, but failed to light fires because the lanterns they carried ran out of fuel. So some of the members of the party were sent to raid a public house on the quay, but the sailors stopped for a quick drink, causing delay. It was almost dawn when the sailors returned and the arson attacks began when they set the coal ship Thompson on fire in hopes that the fire would spread to other ships in the harbor. One of the crew slipped away and alerted residents on a street adjacent to the harbor and large numbers of people ran to the quay, which forced the Americans to retreat. [viii]
After the successful escape to sea, the Ranger crossed the Solway Firth from Whitehaven to Scotland, where Captain Jones hoped to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk for ransom or in exchange for American sailors who had been impressed into the Royal Navy; but the Earl was not on his estate, so Captain Jones wanted to return to the ship. The crew had other ideas and so Captain Jones reluctantly allowed them to plunder a silver plate but nothing else. The crew had originally intended to pillage and plunder the Earl’s estate. The plate was sold in France and proceeds shared by the crew. Later, when in France, John Paul Jones would purchase the plate and return it to the Earl of Selkirk after the war.
The attacks on St. Mary’s Isle and Whitehaven had little result in terms of prizes or profits, which is normally shared by the crew, who acted like they were privateers instead of sailors aboard an official warship. [ix]
The Ranger sailed back across the Irish Sea hoping to get another chance to attack the Drake. On the way, on the morning of April 24th, 1778, the Ranger crew captured a reconnaissance boat and learned from its crew that the Drake had taken on about a dozen British soldiers to board the Ranger and overtake the American ship.
In the afternoon of April 24th, 1778, the ships engaged in combat and after an hour-long gun battle [x] and the death of the captain of the Drake, it was captured. Lieutenant Simpson of the Ranger was given command of the Drake for the return to Brest, France. The ships separated during the return journey as the Ranger chased after another British prize, which led to an argument between Lieutenant Simpson and Captain Jones; but both ships arrived safely. When at port, Captain Jones filed a court-martial against Lieutenant Simpson and kept him detained on the ship, but was released through the influence of John Adams, commissioner in France. In his memoirs, John Adams stated that evidence supported Lieutenant Simpson’s side of the story, who said that Captain Jones had hoped to monopolize the mission’s glory by detaining Lieutenant Simpson under court-martial charges while he celebrated the capture of a British ship with numerous important European dignitaries. [xi]
Sifting through records and reading historical studies, it is difficult to determine what actually occurred because of various stories of individuals present at the time between the surgeon’s diary aboard the Ranger and the writings of the affair by John Adams. One thing stands out, however, that the crew of the Ranger felt alienated by Captain Jones, who was motivated by pride and search for glory. John Paul Jones, a Patriot, believed his intentions were honorable and very well might have been misunderstood [xii] – but one thing for certain, his strategies were essential as part of the victory of the American Revolution. Controversy or not, the capture of the British Drake was one of the significant victories of the American Revolution, which demonstrated that the British navy was not invincible and helped improve moral and further their endeavor to win within the American navy. The escapades of the Ranger and its crew established a symbol of the American spirit and became an inspirational story when the American Navy was established after the American Revolution.
Famous Sea Battle of John Paul Jones
Captain Jones took command of the 42-gun USS Bonhomme Richard in 1779 (referred to by Jones as Bon Homme Richard in his memoirs[xiii]), which was a merchant ship rebuilt into a warship and given to America by the French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. On August 14th, 1779, a large French and Spanish invasion fleet approached England, Captain Jones provided a diversion by heading for Ireland with a squadron of five ships that included the 36-gun Alliance, 32-gun Pallas, 12-gun Vengeance, and the Le Cerf – as well as two privateer ships. Royal Navy warships were sent to Ireland in pursuit of the diversionary squadron, but the Bonhomme Richard changed course and sailed north to Scotland into the North Sea, which created a panic along Britain’s eastern coastline. As before, Captain Jones main problems were from insubordination, particularly by Pierre Landais, the captain of the Alliance. The insubordination problem may have stemmed from the fact of John Paul Jones youthful age and progressing through the ranks, so to speak, being so young to be commanding a squadron.
On September 23rd, 1779, the American squadron met a large merchant convoy off the coast of Flamborough Head and the 50-gun British frigate HMS Serapis and the 20-gun escortCountess of Scarborough positioned themselves between the convoy and Captain Jones’ squadron, and the merchant ships escaped. The Battle of Flamborough Head began shortly after 7 pm.
The Serapis engaged the Bonhomme Richard and soon after the Alliance fired from a distance at the Countess of Scarborough. Captain Jones quickly saw that he could not win toe-to-toe with the big guns of the Serapis because the wind was lessening, so Captain Jones ordered that the Bonhomme Richard be locked together with the Serapis. During that effort and a period of stalemate, British taunts to surrender were answered by Captain Jones with the famous words:
I have not yet begun to fight!
After an hour into the battle, the Bonhomme Richard began to win as the American deck guns and marksmen in the rigging cleared the British decks of the Serapis defenders. Meanwhile, the Alliance sailed past delivering a broadside, which damaged both ships; during which the Countess of Scarborough had maneuvered the Pallas downwind of the main battle in a separate engagement. When the Alliance approached to assist, the badly damaged Countess of Scarborough surrendered. [xiv]
The Bonhomme Richard was burning and beginning to sink, one of the officers who believed his captain was dead, shouted a plea of surrender. The British commander, this time in serious tone and not taunts, asked if they had struck their colors. Crew members and newspaper reports a few days later quoted Captain Jones as saying:
I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike. [xv]
An attempt by the British to board the Bonhomme Richard was thwarted and an exploding grenade set off gunpowder storage on the lower-gun deck of the Serapis; damaging both ships. It was then that Captain Pearson of the Serapis, upon seeing that the battle was achieving nothing, except sinking both ships noticed that the Alliance was lining up for another shot and surrendered. The Bonhomme Richard crew then transferred to other vessels with the British prisoners. The American sailors spent a day and a half trying to repair theBonhomme Richard, but could not be saved and it was allowed to sink and Captain Jones took command of the Serapis, sailing to Holland, a neutral nation but sympathizing to the American cause. [xvi]
In 1790, the King of France honored John Paul Jones with the title Chevalier and Jones accepted the honor, desiring that the title be used when the Continental Congress in 1787 passed a resolution to make a medal of gold in commemoration of his valor and brilliant services. He also received from Louis, the King of France, a decoration of the Ordre du Méite militaire as well as presenting him with a sword. In Britain, however, he was called a pirate and a traitor. International law, however, did not recognize John Paul Jones as a pirate because the flag he flew (image at left) was recorded in Dutch records as American. The flag was called the Serapis Flag or the John Paul Jones Flag, but is also known as the Franklin Flag because of its description given by Benjamin Franklin. As far as being deemed a traitor – all American colonists who fought against the British in the American Revolution were considered traitors to the King of England.
In June of 1782, Captain Jones was given another command, this time the big 74-gun America, but the commission didn’t take affect because Congress decided to give the America to the French to replace their wrecked Le Magnifique. Instead, John Paul Jones was assigned to an American position in Europe in 1783 to collect prize money due to his former crew. When this mission was fulfilled, Captain Jones was unemployed, which forced him to enter service of the Empress Catherine II of Russia in 1788. Admiring Captain Jones, she said:
He will go to Constantinople.
While in the service of the Russian empress, he took the name of Pavel Dzhones.
He accepted the commission as rear admiral of the Russian navy and was given the 24-gun flagship, Vladimir to command, taking part in the naval campaign in the Black Sea region against the Turks. Admiral Jones successfully stopped the Ottoman forces from the area, but the Russian officer Prince Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin (the queen’s lover)and his cohort Prince Charles of Nassau-Seigen, out of jealousy, caused him to be recalled to St. Petersburg for the pretended purpose of being transferred to a command in the North Sea. After arrival, however, he was idle and rival officers plotted against him and even accused him of sexual misconduct. During this period, John Paul Jones wrote his Narrative of the Campaign of the Liman. [xvii]
On June 8th, 1878, Captain Jones was awarded the Order of St. Anne, but within a month he left Russia embittered.
Final Years of an American Hero
John Paul Jones arrived in Paris, France in May of 1790, where he remained in forced retirement until his death, despite several unsuccessful attempts to regain service with the Russian navy. He also kept in contact with his adopted country, now the United States of America, and in June of 1792 was appointed U.S. Consul with the Dey of Algiers to seek the release of American captives. Before Jones could act upon his appointment, he died of a brain tumor [xviii] and was found lying face-down on his bed in his third-floor apartment in Paris, France, No. 42 Rue de Tournon on July 18th, 1792. A funeral was held with a small procession of servants, friends, and loyal soldiers who walked with his coffin on the streets of Paris for four miles to the burial site. He was buried in Paris at the Saint Louis Cemetery, which belonged to the French royal family. Four years later, after the French revolution, the new government sold the property (as they did other property owned by the aristocrats) and the cemetery was forgotten in the fog of history, as well as the burial site of the American naval hero. The property became a garden and a place to dispose dead animals, as well as a hangout for gamblers who bet on animal fights. Definitely a sad requiem for an American seafaring hero; it was not befitting of a man considered to be the Father of the US Navy. He died at 45 years of age, alone and penniless, in a country other than the one he adopted and fought for.
John Paul Jones Finally Comes to America
In 1905, John Paul Jones’ remains were identified by US Ambassador to France, General Horace Porter who had spend six years searching for the body of the American hero. A French admirer of Jones, Pierrot Francois Simmoneau, donated 460 francs for Jones’ corpse to be immersed in alcohol and placed in a lead-lined coffin for Jones’ body when he was buried, which helped the search team find Jones’ body in the forgotten cemetery. Mr. Porter’s team included an anthropologist, Louis Capitan, who identified an abandoned site in northeastern Paris as the former St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants. Using new technology (for 1905), sounding probes were used to search for lead coffins and five were exhumed. The third coffin unearthed on April 7th, 1905, was later identified by examination of Doctors Capitan and Georges Papillault as being John Paul Jones, much of the conclusion based upon a bust statue made by Jean-Antoine Houdon. The body of John Paul Jones was brought to the United States with great ceremony aboard the USS Brooklyn, escorted by three other cruisers. When the vessels reached the American coastline, seven US Navy battleships joined the fleet to the harbor. On April 24th, 1906, Jones’ coffin was placed in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, following a ceremony in Dahlgren Hall, where President Theodore Roosevelt gave a tributary speech. [xix]
On January 26th, 1913, Captain Jones’ remains were re-interred in a bronze and marble sarcophagus at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis.
In a story written by Military History magazine, August/September 2009 issue of John Paul Jones and his death described the findings of the Maryland School of Medicineduring a discussion at the Historical Clinicopathological Conference in the spring of 2009. A presentation was given by Dr. Matthew Weir, professor of University of Maryland and the US Naval Academy historian, Lori Lyn Bogle. At the time of the disbandment of the Continental Navy in 1785, Captain Jones was unemployed and …
…was already suffering impaired vision and cyclical fever tied to his naval travels. “These fever-related illnesses could have been anything from malaria or dengue fever to bacteria or viruses,” explains Weir. “You name it – he had a lot going on as a young man.”
Regardless, Jones served briefly as a rear admiral in Russia’s imperial navy, and then traveled to France in 1790 to seek a similar post. But the captain was in rapid decline, with yellowed skin, abdominal swelling, a hacking cough and labored breathing. He was buried in an expatriate cemetery, its location soon forgotten. In 1905 an American search team rediscovered the body (see photo), preserved in alcohol in a lead-lined coffin. The Paris School of Medicine performed an autopsy. Weir reviewed Jones’ medical history and the Parisian pathology report to reach his diagnosis: end-stage kidney failure due to viral or bacterial infection. [xx]
While definitely a man who intended to fulfill whatever he purpose to do, he was also vain and had aspirations for fame and fortune – but was generous and had character and integrity, as demonstrated when in his youth he had refused to remain aboard a slave ship as well as returning the stolen property of the Earl of Selkirk. He did not have the character of a privateer or the ruthlessness of a pirate, as he was depicted by the British, and unlike his crew, kept his demeanor as a naval captain of a nation that was not yet recognized as a nation in some diplomatic circles. He was educated enough to be an accomplished writer, as evident in his papers and naval reports. Benjamin Franklin described him as warm and favored the friendship they struck after meeting.
In studying the life and career of America’s most famous naval officer, it becomes entangled with different perspectives and versions. For example, the paper by Jan K. Herman, an Historian of the Navy Medical Department, entitled Captain John Paul Jones, Post-Mortem, wrote that John Paul Jones had contracted pneumonia during his campaign for the Russians because of the harsh winters there and this soon became a chronic disorder. He also wrote that John Paul Jones was afflicted with a bronchial condition attained before his service to Russia’s empress, Catherine II, as well as claiming that John Paul Jones had been infected with malaria during his voyages in the West Indies as a youthful mariner. Malaria, especially in those days, if one survived, was a reoccurring affliction. By the time he returned to Paris in 1790, his voice, wrote Jan Herman,
…weakened and his diminutive five feet seven inch frame wracked by frequent coughing fits. Two years later the once wiry seaman had already lost much of his appetite and began to show symptoms of jaundice. Jones’s limbs swelled and 18th century medicine could do little to stem his overall physical decline. Colonel Samuel Blackden, a North Carolina planter, described his last illness: “ A few days before his death his legs began to swell, which proceeded upwards to his body so that for two days before decease he could not button his waistcoat and had great difficulty in breathing. …” On 18 July 1792, Jones succumbed to “dropsy of the heart” at age 45. Blackden recalled that “the body was put into a leaden coffin … that, in case the United States, which he so essentially served with so much honor, should claim his remains they might be more easily removed.”
Later, as is written here, the body was returned and examined. Mr. Herman wrote:
Those present were amazed to find that the body which had been wrapped in linen and packed with straw had also been immersed in alcohol. The flesh appeared to be well preserved. Porter wrote: “The face presented quite a natural appearance. …Upon placing [a likeness of Jones in profile] near the face, comparing the other features and contour of brow, appearance of the hair, high cheek-bones, prominently arched eye-orbits, and other points of resemblance – we instinctively claimed, ‘Paul Jones’; and all those who were gathered about the coffin removed their hats, feeling that they were standing in the presence of the illustrious dead – the object of the long search.” … After removing the linen winding sheet, an anthropologist carefully measured the cranial features. … It only remained for the experts to conduct an autopsy. The internal organs, flooded with alcohol, were as well preserved as laboratory specimens. Plural adhesions were present, particularly over the upper lobes. Jones once though himself infested with tuberculosis, yet examination showed no evidence of tubercular bacilli. The left lung showed a spot surrounded by fibrous tissue, a possible remnant of his bout with pneumonia. The cardiac muscle, still flexible after 113 years, showed no signs of pathology. … The stomach was contracted, the spleen somewhat enlarged. The tissue of both organs, however, was firm and free of lesions. … Clear evidence of interstitial nephritis or brightism existed. … A 1952 analysis of the autopsy report suggested that the renal disease may have had its origin both in Jones’ recurring fever and a severe respiratory tract infection he suffered while traveling in Russia. …On 26 January 1913 the remains of John Paul Jones, rescued from the obscurity of a forgotten grave, were finally laid to rest in a crypt at the Academy chapel.
Maybe John Paul Jones thoughts of dying at an early age of disease encouraged his heroics, but whatever his personal faults, he remains an American patriot, hero of the revolution that created our nation.
Bibliography – Further Reading
Apprenticeship of John Paul Jones – 20/20
Early Adventures of John Paul Jones – 20/20
Return to Scotland – 20/20
John Paul Jones Greatest Exploits – 20/20
John Paul Jones Service in France – 20/20
American Revolutionary War – Homestead.com
John Paul Jones Crypt – USS Ranger Guy
History of John Paul Jones Cottage – John Paul Jones Museum
Life of John Paul Jones – John Paul Jones Museum
Portsmouth’s Ranger Raids Britain! – seacoastnh.com
Recovery of the Body of John Paul Jones – southcoastsar.org
John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior – Journal of Military History, Volume 70, Number 4; October 2006; John BuchananJohn Paul Jones and Asymmetric Warfare – Bruce L. Brager; Military History Online
American Revolutionary War – History Place
What Killed Naval Hero John Paul Jones? – University of Maryland; First Science News; May 1, 2009
Letter from the Earl of Selkirk to John Paul Jones – Wikipedia (a different, more detailed version of the stolen silver)
Heroic Life of Captain John Paul Jones – seacastnh.com
Life and Character of John Paul Jones; John Henry Sherburne
Life and Letters of John Paul Jones; Anna de Koven
John Paul Jones: – Evan Thomas
John Paul Jones – Charles W. Stewart
John Paul Jones – Joseph F. Callo
John Paul Jones Manuscripts, Library of Congress
Dawn of American History in Europe, William Lewis Nida
Greatest War Stories Never Told, Rick Beyer
Quest for the HMS Serapis
Warships of the World to 1900, Lincoln P. Paine
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson
John Adams, HBO miniseries, HBO films
[i] John Paul Jones Timeline, SeacoastNH.com.
[iii] Old Halifax, Ambistead C. Gordon
[iv] Extracts from the Journals of my Campaigns – John Paul Jones, 1785.
[v] John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography by S.E. Morgan; Naval Institute Press; p. 52.
[vi] This was not mentioned in Captain Jones’ official report.
[vii] Report to the American Plenipotentiaries at the Court of Versailles
[viii] News Report from Whitehaven – Cumberland Chronicle, April 25th, 1785
[ix] John Paul Jones: His Exploits in English Seas during 1778-80 by Don Seitz.
[x] See North Channel Naval Duel.
[xi] John Adams Autobiography, Part 2, Travels and Negotiations by John Adams, 1778.
[xii] Extracts from the Journals of my Campaigns by John Paul Jones, 1785.
[xiii] Log of the Bon Homme Richard, 1779; John Paul Jones Cottage Museum.
[xiv] Officers of the American Squadron: Affidavit, October 30th 1779; Yorkshire History.
[xv] News Report from Yorkshire; York Courant, October 12th 1779
[xvi] Letter to Benjamin Franklin; John Paul Jones; yorkshirehistory.com.
[xvii] Liman was the name of an area of the Black Sea in which he campaigned.
[xviii] This later was corrected – see Endnote XX below.
[xix] Dedication speech, Annapolis, April 24th, 1906; Theodore Roosevelt; Theodore-roosevelt.com.
[xx] At Jones’ death, the Parisian doctor who examined his body made a report that the cause of death was a brain tumor; Dr. Weir corrected 217 years later as dying from kidney failure complicated by a bacterial or virus infection.