John Paul Jones: Pirate, Sailor, and Hero

John Paul Jones was the son of John Paul Sr. and Jean McDuff. He was born on 6 July 1747 at the estate of Arbigland near Kirkbean on the southwest coast of Scotland and was christened John Paul, but later added Jones as his surname. At the age of 13 Jones began his maritime career as an apprentice sailing aboard the Friendship under Captain Benson. He then sailed for several years aboard various merchant and slave ships and became a first mate in 1766 but found his maritime career enjoyed a giant leap forward when he took a trip in 1768 aboard the brig John.

John Paul Jones by Charles Wlson Peale

John Paul Jones by Charles Wilson Peale in 1781. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During the trip, the ship’s captain and Jones’ ranking mate died of yellow fever. Left in charge, Jones navigated the John back to port and was greatly rewarded for this achievement. The vessel’s owners made him a master of the ship and gave him 10% of the cargo, which established his sailing reputation and made him rich.

Jones then made two successful trips to the West Indies. However, on his second trip he flogged an adventurer aboard for trying to start a mutiny. The adventurer was from an influential Scottish family who accused Jones of being “unnecessarily cruel.” The claim went unproven and was soon dismissed, but within a few weeks the adventurer died. Jones was then arrested and imprisoned at Kirkcudbright Tolbooth, having thought to be implicated in his death. Nevertheless, it was soon determined the man died from yellow fever, and so Jones was released on bail and encouraged to leave Scotland, which he did.

Jones ended up in England and began commanding a London-registered vessel named Betsy. It was engaged in commercial speculation in Tobago Island, and while aboard this ship Jones found himself in trouble again. This time he killed a mutinous man described as a “huge mulatto” named Maxwell who menacingly came at him in a disagreement over wages. Of the incident Jones supposedly later declared:

“I would say that it became necessary to strike the mutinous sailor Maxwell. Whenever it becomes necessary for a commanding officer to strike a seaman it is necessary to strike with a weapon. I may say that the necessity to strike carries with it the necessity to kill or to completely disable the mutineer. I had two braces of loaded pistols in my belt, and could easily have shot him. I struck with a belaying pin* in preference, because I hoped that I might subdue him without killing him. But the result proved otherwise. … I used a belaying pin, which, though dangerous, is not necessarily a fatal weapon.”[1]

Jones was to be tried for Maxwell’s death in a normal court because the Admiralty Court was not sitting at the time and because Maxwell was a local, Jones worried the jury would favor the dead man. He therefore decided to flee, left his fortune behind, headed for the U.S., and settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He would later describe the Maxwell incident to America’s great Founding Father Benjamin Franklin declaring that it happened in self-defense and describing it as “that great misfortune of my life.”[2]  

It was also around this time that John Paul then appended Jones to his name. According to one long-held tradition in the state of North Carolina he adopted the name of “Jones” to honor Willie Jones (an American planter and statesman) of Halifax, North Carolina. However, there is also the story he chose the name Jones because it was a common name and he could hide from the law, as well as another claim that Jones’ brother William Paul had preceded him to Virginia and was adopted by a kinsman with the surname Jones and when William Paul Jones died for John Paul to inherit his brother’s estate, he supposedly changed his name to Jones.

Around 1775, John Paul Jones volunteered his services to the newly founded Continental Navy as there was a great demand for ship officers and captains. He might have gone unnoticed but for Richard Henry Lee, a Virginian, American statesman, and Founding Father, who knew of his sailing abilities. Lee acquired help from influential members of the Continental Congress to aid Jones in getting appointed as a 1st Lieutenant of the newly converted 24-gun frigate Alfred on 7 December 1775.

John Paul Jones

John Paul Jones. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

John Paul Jones was lucky to have acquired that position because according to the following story he had apparently offended Johns Adams, the future president and the man who received the moniker of “Father of the American Navy” for having built the U.S. navy:

“[Adams] seems to have been particularly hostile to Jones … [who was] quite a beau in the society of the Quaker City, and of this society the gayest center was the mansion of the Carrolls of Carrollton, where Jones was a constant and favored guest. At an evening party, which included both the future President and the embryo Admiral, Mr. Adams, who was nothing if not pedantic, undertook to recite in French to a company of young ladies thoroughly versed in that language a fable of Fontinelle. It may be assumed that nether his accent nor his version was strictly Parisian, and after he had gone the young ladies turned to Jones and asked what he thought of Mr. Adams’ French, when Jones with something of the superciliousness of the coxcomb, along with the audacity of being young, exclaimed, ‘It is fortunate that Mr. Adams’ politic is not as English as his French because if it was he would be a Tory!’; The epigram cost him dear … [because] the bonmot in due season reached the ears of the sturdy old patriot, and when the list of the new navy appointments appeared the name of John Paul Jones, who had reason to expect nothing less than a captaincy, led only the First Lieutenants.”[3]

Although Jones would prove to a great sailor, he also had numerous disagreements with authorities. For instance, in 1776, he began feuding with the only Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War, Commodore Esek Hopkins. Jones thought Hopkins was hindering his advancement and was upset. As a result of this and other frustrations, Jones was assigned to a smaller command on the newly constructed sloop-of-war USS Ranger on 14 June 1777.

John Paul Jones

John Paul Jones. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Jones then sailed for France where he developed a relationship with the American commissioners – Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee. They listened to Jones’ strategic recommendations but due to unforeseen circumstances, he was soon left without a command until early 1777. France then signed the Treaty of Alliance on 6 February 1778 with America, and eight days later Captain Jones received a formal nine-gun salute from Captain Lamotte-Piquet’s flagship. A couple of months later, on 10 April, Jones set sail from Brest, France, for the western coast of Britain. Once there it did not take him long to establish himself as a war hero at Whitehaven on 17 April:

“Jones believed in making reprisals, and he spread terror and alarm along the Irish, Welsh and English coasts. He chose, however, as the place of direct attack White Haven, where he had lived as boy … He contemplated burning all the vessels … and looting the town. David Freeman, deserter from Jones’ ship, spread the alarm among the inhabitants of the town, and Wallingford, one of Jones’ lieutenants, was slow in carrying out some of his instruction. As it was, however, the expatriated Scotsman succeeded in capturing one of the forts which guarded the place, leading the land attack in person. With his own hand he spiked every gun in the fortification, and then turned his attention to the firing of the shipping. … Jones succeeded in boarding one of the largest merchantmen in the Solway and applied the torch … [and then] ran across the British man-of-war Drake … gave battle at once, and after a bloody fight he took the British vessel and hauled down its colors … [and] took his prize into a French port. The French people were not accustomed to naval victories over the English, let alone to victories won by an inferior force, and the name of Jones at once became the synonym for heroism.”[4]

After meeting Franklin in 1777 Jones developed a close friendship with him and the two men began to exchange letters. One letter that Franklin sent from his Passy residence, where he lived next to the Princesse de Lamballe, was dated 14 March 1779. At the time Franklin was serving as the Ambassador to France and in the letter, he alluded to a false rumor circulating in Paris about Jones supposedly attacking an old woman to ravish her. According to Franklin:

“L’Abbé Rochon had just been telling me & Madame Chaumont that the old Gardiner & his Wife had complained to the Curate, of your having attack’d her in the Garden about 7 O’Clock the Evening before your Departure; and attempted to ravish her, relating all the Circumstances, some of which are not fit for me to write. The serious Part of it was that three of her Sons were determin’d to kill you, if you had not gone off; The Rest occasioned some Laughing: for the old Woman being one of the grossest, coarsest, dirtiest & ugliest that one may find in a thousand, Madame Chaumont said it gave a high Idea of the Strength of Appetite & Courage of the Americans.— A Day or two after, I learnt that it was the femme de Chambre of Mademoiselle Chaumont who had disguis’d herself in a Suit I think of your Cloaths, to divert herself under that Masquerade, as is customary the last evening of Carnival: and that meeting the old Woman in the Garden, She took it into her Head to try her Chastity, which it seems was found Proof.”[5]

In 1779, Jones took command of the 42-gun USS Bonhomme Richard, a merchant ship rebuilt and given to America by the French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. Jones’ main problems, as previously, resulted from insubordination. However, this time he proved himself a hero on the high seas and became a legend touted in the London’s Morning Post in the following way: “Paul Jones resembles a Jack o’ Lantern, to mislead our mariners and terrify our coasts.”[6] So, when he arrived in Paris in April of 1780 he was once again viewed as a hero to the French:

“He was ‘feasted and caressed by all the world,’ … The city, green and blooming in springtime, was gay with pre-revolutionary excess and innocence, and Jones was the magnificent man of the hour. He was applauded at the opera, painted, sculpted, titled, and (almost) crowned with laurels. … He went to the theater, to the Comédie Italienne, to the ballet, to the opera; he paraded down the boulevards, and avenues; everywhere, people stopped and stared, stood and applauded.”[7]

Engraving based on the painting titled “Action Between the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard” by Richard Paton, published 1780. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Moreover, because of his heroics, King Louis XVI, honored him with the title “Chevalier,” gifted him a decoration of “l’Institution du Mérite Militaire,” and presented him a gold-hilted sword. Jones particularly loved his new title of chevalier and thereafter desired it be used. So, when the Continental Congress in 1787 unanimously resolved that a medal of gold be struck in commemoration of “of that officer, in the command of a squadron of American and French ships, under the flag and commission of the United States, off the coast of Great Britain; in the late war,” it was presented to “Chevalier John Paul Jones.”

John Paul Jones returning to America a hero.

John Paul Jones returning to America a hero. Author’s collection.

While Jones might have been viewed as hero in France and the United States, in Britain he was denigrated as an American pirate despite the occasional report being published in newspapers about his “remarkable sailing feats.” Additionally, although John Paul Jones might have been cut a daring figure at sea, on land he looked nothing like any sort of man who would be considered brave, gallant, or fearless.

“He was only five feet tall and of light weight, but in his fighting qualities his ounces counted like other men’s pounds. His face was grave and thoughtful, and his eyes were as sharp as his cutlass.”[8]

John Paul Jones in combat on the Bonhomme Richard against the Serapis.

John Paul Jones in combat on the Bonhomme Richard against the Serapis. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

On 23 April 1787 John Paul Jones entered the service of the Empress Catherine II of Russia but his inability to understand imperial politics and perhaps resentment of him by several ex-British naval officers resulted in him being recalled to St. Petersburg. He then remained idle and soon malicious charges where made against him about sexual misconduct with 12-year-old Katerina Goltzwart, whom he had supposedly raped. He was arrested but an investigation convinced the Russian commander Prince Grigory Potëmkin that the girl had not been raped and that Prince de Nassau-Siegen had accused Jones falsely and for his own benefit. Nonetheless, Jones did confess that he had “often frolicked” with Goltzwart for cash but he also denied he had deprived her of her virginity.

When word began to spread about the incident with 12-year-old Goltzwart, it ruined Jones’ reputation and so on 8 June 1788, he left St. Petersburg and drifted around until he arrived a year later in Warsaw, Poland. There he befriended Tadeusz Kościuszko, another veteran of the American Revolutionary War. However, Jones did not stay long in Poland because a year later in May of 1790 he arrived in Paris. His memoirs had in the meantime been published in Edinburgh and they would go on to inspire American author James Fenimore Cooper and Frenchman Alexandre Dumas to later write adventure novels.

In June of 1792, 45-year-old John Paul Jones was appointed to obtain the release of American captives being held by the Dey of Algiers, but before he could fulfill this calling, he was found dead lying face-down on his bed in his third-floor Paris apartment at No. 19 Rue de Tournon. He had been sick for some time and had suffered from bouts of pneumonia and from lungs weakened by dropsy. Nonetheless, when he died on 18 July 1792, it was because of interstitial nephritis, inflammation in the kidney area known as the interstitium.

After Jones’ death, Frenchman Pierrot Francois Simmoneau had great forethought when he donated over 460 francs to preserved Jones’ body in alcohol. He then had it interred in an air-tight lead coffin, “should more enlightened American governments seek to reclaim and properly honor their hero’s remains.”[9] Jones’ alcohol laced body was then taken in a small procession by servants, friends, and loyal family members to the Paris cemetery of Saint Louis, which belonged to the French royal family. Less than a month later, the cemetery became the burial grounds for the Swiss guards slaughtered while attempting to stop a mob at the Tuileries Palace from harming Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Four years later after Jones’ low-key burial, the Saint Louis Cemetery was sold and as Paris expanded, the cemetery was forgotten. Buildings began to rise in the area, and Parisians seemed generally unconcerned about Jones and American seemed to have nearly forgotten him. Nonetheless, on occasion there would be a mention in America of the once great sailor and a few halfhearted attempts were undertaken to find his grave but proved futile.

It seemed as if John Paul Jones would never be recovered until General Horace Porter, U.S. Ambassador to France, began searching for his body around 1899. Porter knew John Paul Jones was buried in the Saint Louis Cemetery and with the aid of an old Parisian map, Porter’s team, which included anthropologist Louis Capitan, identified its location. However, once word leaked out that the cemetery had been found, the owners of the building site where the digging was to occur demanded an exorbitant amount to allow Porter to dig up Jones’ remains. Porter therefore postponed the project until 1905 at which time Scranton’s Tribune reported on the receipt of a dispatch dated 14 February 1906:

“Have sunk shaft and have found rows of graves undisturbed at a depth of seventeen feet.”[10]  

Five coffins were ultimately exhumed. Of them the third one was determined to hold Jones and when opened his body was found to have been excellently preserved by Simmoneau’s alcohol method. Still a meticulous post-mortem was undertaken by Doctor Capitan and Doctor Georges Papillault, who confirmed during their autopsy that Jones had died of interstitial nephritis. In addition, to determine the body was Jones, his face was compared against a bust made by Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1780.

President Theodore Roosevelt realized the importance of the discovery of Jones’ body and sent a fleet to France to escort his remains back to the United States. In 1906, Roosevelt, members of his cabinet, distinguished party officials, and the French ambassador attended the burial to honor one of America’s greatest sailors. The preserved body of John Paul Jones was interred in a crypt beneath the Annapolis, Maryland, Naval Academy in a ceremony presided over by Roosevelt.

Although much has been written about John Paul Jones over the years, twenty-first century author Thomas perhaps best sums up his life:

“John Paul Jones may not have said, ‘I have not yet begun to fight,’ but … he never stopped fighting. He was a lonely man … [and] if he was not exactly a model of maritime greatness, he was a most fascinating and protean figure. Despite deep and almost crippling flaws, he invented himself. He wanted to be something greater and grander than the position assigned to him by birth and chance, and so he was. His drive and energy were of enormous use to his adopted country. He did not possess the political vision of the Founders, but they were lucky to have a few men like Jones — and there were precious few — to chase the dream of liberty with a drawn sword and indomitable courage. Jones in his life, did not win the glory he sought. But he did help win a nation’s freedom.”[11]

The John Paul Jones memorial in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


*A belaying pin is a solid metal or wooden device used on traditionally rigged sailing vessels to secure running rigging lines, although today’s modern vessels have mostly replaced their belaying pins with cleats.

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