John Paul Jones: A Founder of the U.S. Navy

From a Scottish port to colonial Fredericksburg to the royal courts of France and Russia, the little man who famously refused to give up the fight was perfectly at home in both cottages and elegant salons, but he was always eager to set sail for adventure and glory.

The Sailor Lad Named John Paul

He was a Scot by a whisker, born at an estate named Arbigland at Kirkbean, Kirkcudbright, on the southern coast of Scotland on July 6, 1747. His father was no nobleman. He was the gardener for the Arbigland estate,, opens a new window and the Paul family lived in a small but comfortable cottage, opens a new window. John Paul had the usual course of study at a village school in Kirkbean, and, by the time he was 13, he was ready to go to sea.

This was not an unusual choice for teenage boys growing up on the Scottish coast, and his parents gave their blessing. John Paul's first voyages were aboard the merchant brig Friendship out of Whitehaven. The Friendship was not a large vessel. She measured perhaps 80 to 85 feet by 22 feet. But she was ocean-going, and her crew of 28 knew how to handle both her sails and her 18 deck guns.  Guns she needed, for in those days, merchant vessels might be harassed by pirates or enemy nations.

The Fredericksburg Connection

For three years, John Paul sailed the Friendship on her yearly voyage from Whitehaven to Barbados to Virginia. Her "triangle trade" sent out consumer goods to Barbados, where she picked up rum and sugar in their place. In Virginia, those were exchanged for tobacco, pig iron, and barrel staves.

Fredericksburg, Virginia, was home to John Paul's older brother William.  William worked as a tailor in the busy colonial port, living at the corner of what is now Caroline Street and Lafayette Boulevard. William had an unhappy marriage and left no children, but, during the visits, his young brother became enthusiastic about the American colony's prospects.

After the French and Indian War ended, Britain experienced a recession. Back in Whitehaven, the Friendship was sold and her crew let go. Sixteen-year-old John Paul had three years' worth of sailing skills but was now without work, as were many seamen. Eventually, he accepted work as third mate aboard the King George. The King George was a slaver, also known as a blackbirder, taking advantage of the still legal status on importations of enslaved Africans.

John Paul served on the King George for two years. He then took a post as first mate aboard another slaver called the Two Friends. But after just one voyage aboard the Two Friends, he resigned, never again serving as part of what he would later call "that abominable trade."  Still a teenager when he was paid off in Jamaica, he was able to find a ride home to Britain with a friendly Scot, also from Kirkcudbright, aboard the brigantine John.

A Captain at Last

But both the master and first mate of the John died of fever during the voyage, so young John Paul sailed her back to her home port. The ship's owners were very happy to have their ship arrive safely and rewarded John Paul by giving him his first command.

Twenty-year-old John Paul and six other crew members made two round-trip voyages to Jamaica in the John. With the John's owners' full recommendations, John Paul's next command came in 1772 when he took charge of the three-masted brig, the Betsy of London.

Under an Assumed Name

The Betsy made good money for Captain Paul, but she was a leaky vessel, and some of the crew became mutinous over a pay issue. Whilst in Tobago, the ringleader--whom John Paul later described as "a prodigious brute of thrice my strength"--swung at him with a club. The small-sized Captain Paul ran him through with his sword. Since his assailant was local to Tobago, John Paul's friends urged him to consider leaving the island quickly, not trusting the local authorities to give him a fair hearing. This he did, tacking on the moniker Jones to John Paul. From here on out, he would be known as Captain Paul Jones rather than Captain Paul.

In early 1774, he was back in Fredericksburg with his brother William. By this time he was 27 years old and ready to make the acquaintance of some of the Old Dominion's Revolutionary leaders. Like many of those powerful men, he was a Mason, welcome at any lodge in the world. Later in France, he would spend time at the Seven Sisters Lodge, popular with American diplomats and a gathering place for early revolutionary ideas.

The War Begins

In 1775, after the battles at Lexington and Concord, John Paul Jones offered his services to the new Continental Navy. He served on the Providence (ex-Katy), the Alfred,, opens a new window and the Ranger. They captured prize ships, including valuable merchant vessels, and destroyed shore batteries. The Mellish's captured cargo of 10,000 complete winter uniforms and other equipment were especially appreciated by George Washington and his freezing troops at Valley Forge in the days before they crossed the Delaware for a surprise attack at Trenton.

The captain was confident in his tactics and critical of his opponents, writing of his capture of the HMS Milford near Nova Scotia that he cracked on the sail, then shortened down " give him a wild goose chase, and tempt him to throw away powder and shot...He excited my contempt so much by his continual firing at more than twice the proper distance, that when he rounded to give his broadside, I ordered my Marine officer to return the salute with only a single musquit."

Tormenting the British Coast - and His Hometown

John Paul Jones continued his patrol of the New England coast until July of 1777 when he took charge of the newly-built Ranger. Named in honor of American riflemen, the Ranger was a specially constructed warship and not a converted merchant vessel.

On November 1, 1777, the Ranger set sail for France. Upon arrival, Jones reported to First Commissioner Benjamin Franklin who introduced him to Parisian society and international politics. Although Jones hoped to exchange the Ranger for a larger and better ship, soon the captain was setting sail with a refitted Ranger, his commission in hand to "[distress] the Enemies of the United States, by sea or otherwise, consistent with the laws of war, and the terms of your commission."

Capturing more prize vessels and launching raids on the British coast was how he intended to fulfill that commission. Sailing back to Whitehaven and Kirkcudbright Bay, Jones was certainly in familiar waters. Famously, despite a nearly mutinous crew--some of whom chucked his orders to instead go to a nearby pub--he successfully and bloodlessly took out the guns at Whitehaven, adding luster to his reputation. The English newspapers were filled with rumors of John Paul Jones' appearance off many a coastal town, and contemporary illustrations showed him snarling, with a distinctly piratical gleam to his eye.

In April of 1778, he made a strange and daring daylight raid on the Earl of Selkirk's mansion, though it did not go as he planned.

His frequently unruly crew demanded more prize money, and so, in order to satisfy them, he allowed them to politely filch the Selkirk silver service--but naught else. The captain's real purpose in the raid was to kidnap the Earl and exchange him for guarantees that captured U.S. sailors would be treated as prisoners of war and not summarily hanged as pirates. Unfortunately for Jones, the Earl was not at home. Determined to act in a gentlemanly fashion, the mortified captain bought back the silver from his crew and later returned it to Lord Selkirk and his lady with many apologies.

Shortly after the Selkirk episode, he and his crew took out HMS Drake--her decks "running with blood and rum"--and captured some 200 prisoners in the process.

The Bon Homme Richard v. the HMS Serapis: "I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight!"

In February 1779, the captain was given command of a large ship designed to carry heavy guns. It was called Duc de Duras, but John Paul Jones renamed it Bonhomme Richard in honor of his friend, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote and published Poor Richard's Almanack, opens a new window, which had been translated to the French as Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.

Built by the French, the Bon Homme Richard was a luxurious vessel, with beautiful carvings, gold decorations, veneered decks, and a spacious, well-lit captain's cabin, riding high above the waterline. The crew was a mix of American, British, French, Portuguese, Danish and Dutch sailors. On board also was Dr. Laurence Brooke, opens a new window, a native of Spotsylvania.

The Bon Homme Richard was the center of a squadron that sailed on June 12. 

At sunset on September 23, they encountered HMS Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough escorting a fleet of 41 merchantmen. Jones got close by assuming the identity of a British vessel that resembled his own.

The battle lasted for several hours, leaving the Richard slowly sinking from a raking by Serapis' 18-lb guns, leading to Jones making his famous pronouncement: "I have not yet begun to fight!" Yet ultimately the victory went to the Americans in part due to the sheer nerve of one of Jones' maintop men. Scotsman Bill Hamilton crawled across the Richard's main yard with a sack of grenades and tossed them into the Serapis' main hatch, touching off an explosion of powder cartridges. After that devastation, Captain Pearson of the Serapis surrendered. In Jones' blasted and ruined luxury cabin, Pearson offered his host his sword, and the two men cordially drank glasses of wine as the poor Richard continued to sink beneath them.

Both crews sustained heavy casualties, and Jones received a head wound. Richard's crew was transferred to the captured Serapis and the other American ships.  Although Jones tried hard to save the Richard, she sank beneath the waves the following day, taking some of Jones' personal belongings with her.

John Paul Jones' victory inspired his French allies and the young country that was very much embroiled with land battles. He received many military honors and a special gold medal—which he helped design--was struck to commemorate the victory. One side showed his handsome profile and the other had a likeness of the victorious but doomed Bon Homme Richard.

Chevalier Paul Jones: Ladies' Man

Despite his famous success, John Paul Jones had a difficult time finding a command worthy of his accomplishments. Benjamin Franklin assured his protégé that his "cool Conduct & persevering Bravery" were the talk of Paris and Versailles. Proud as the French were of him, they considered the captured Serapis to be French property as the Richard had technically belonged to them while Jones captained her.

Still, while looking for a position, Jones kept busy. His rock-star status, good looks, and gentle manners earned him much appreciation. The French king Louis XVI gave him the Order of Military Merit, which allowed him to sign his name "Chevalier Paul Jones," as he sometimes did. 

Abigail Adams, wife to the future president, wrote of Jones:

"Under all this appearance of softness he is bold, enterprising, ambitious and active. He has been here often and dined with us several times; he is said to be a man of gallantry and a favorite amongst the French ladies..."

Comfortable though he was, his ambition pushed him to make conquests beyond the boudoirs. He almost got a significant command back in the United States, but, at the last moment, the 74-gun ship America was gifted to the French as a thank-you for their help in defeating the British.

Left without a proper rank as Congress chose to give him a gold medal rather than an exalted position, John Paul Jones took up Russian Empress Catherine the Great's offer of an admiralty. He performed well in the Liman Campaign against the Turks in the Black Sea, but he made an enemy of Prince Potemkin, the Queen's favorite, when he criticized the leadership of the other commanders--though he got on very well with the Russian crews.

 Admiral Ivan Pavel Dzhones Leaves Russia under a Cloud

While waiting for his next command, the admiral learned more about the ways of the Russian Court. He continued enjoying women who offered themselves to him and did not refuse when a fresh-faced peddler-girl made him a proposition. The young butter-seller went to the authorities claiming that Jones had raped her, and she a virgin and not yet in her teens.

Naturally, popular sentiment rose against him, although it was later revealed that the girl was a good bit older and definitely not an innocent. It came to light that this was probably a court-driven plot, but by that time it was too late to save his reputation. He went to Empress Catherine hoping to get another command, but instead, he received an official leave of absence. Between his newfound notoriety and Empress' coolness towards him, it was time to leave Mother Russia and return to Paris.

 An Early Death but a Hero's Return

Unfortunately, the Paris to which John Paul Jones returned was not the glittering jewel that it had once been.  The French were experiencing their own revolution, and his health was very poor. Although the Swedes did offer him the chance to fight the ungrateful Russians, he died in debt on July 18, 1792, before he could accept either that or a forthcoming position as U.S. Consul to the Barbary States. He was 45 years old.

Jones' French friends paid for the funeral, and he was buried in a lead-lined coffin in the cemetery for Protestant foreigners. They also took care to preserve his body in alcohol, so that he might better be paid proper honors when the madness of the world subsided, and the United States remembered her hero.

It was a long time coming, but in 1905 American authorities located his coffin in the now over-built cemetery. They were able to find it relatively easily because it was lined in lead. The body was moved back to America with pomp and show as 11 battleships saw him back home over the seas with great ceremony. Fredericksburg was among the places that vied to be his final resting place, but, in the end the Naval Academy Chapel at Annapolis was chosen.

The body of John Paul Jones rests in an ornate crypt carved with the names of his fighting vessels.

More About John Paul Jones in Print

This article has only sketched John Paul Jones' brilliant and tempestuous life. The following books and Web sites are intriguing sources of information:

John Paul Jones, opens a new window by Samuel Eliot Morison

John Paul Jones, opens a new window by Frank Walker

Whitehaven Connections, opens a new window by Paula S. Felder

Central Rappahannock Regional Library's Virginiana Room, opens a new window has numerous other volumes, opens a new window on the captain which can be used in the building.

More to Explore Online

American War of Independence at Sea, opens a new window

Fanning's Narrative, Being the Memoirs of Nathaniel Fanning, an Officer of the Revolutionary Navy, 1778-1783, opens a new window

John Paul Jones, opens a new window (Navy History and Heritage Command)

Life and Correspondence of John Paul Jones, Including His Narrative of the Campaign of the Liman, opens a new window

The Serapis Project, opens a new window