Referred to as the “Father of the American Navy,” John Paul Jones was born in Arbigland, Scotland in 1747. His original name was just John Paul, which he would change later in his life. His sailing career started as an apprentice to a Scottish Merchant shipper at the age of 12, and he was met with challenges from the very beginning. In 1768 the Captain and First Mate of the ship succumbed to yellow fever. After their deaths, John Paul took charge and was able to safely navigate the ship back to port, where the owners promptly put him in charge of the ship and its crew.
John Paul’s early career did not go without incident, and he established very early on that he was not to be taken for a fool. On two separate occasions, he punished crew mates for complaining about wanting to be paid upfront for their labor. One man was flogged so badly that he died from his wounds. The other met his fate at the end of John Paul’s sword, an act that he described in a letter to Benjamin Franklin that was performed in self-defense.
Both of these victims had held high status in Scottish society, and John Paul became worried about standing trial for their deaths. He fled to his brother in Fredericksburg, Virginia, abandoning a small fortune he had been building for himself in Scotland. It was when he reached the colonies that he adopted the name John Paul Jones.
On April 19th, 1775 the American War for Independence began at the battle of Lexington and Concord. A revolutionary spirit flew through the American colonies as the Colonial Army won their first battle against the seemingly unstoppable British Army. Eager to join the fray, on December 7th, 1775 John Paul Jones was commissioned into the Colonial Navy as a First Lieutenant on the Alfred, and later became the Captain of the Providence.
The grand British Navy was no match for John Paul Jones cunning sea tactics. Jones relentlessly harassed any and all British vessels along the coast of the newly founded United States. His reputation and growing experience in naval warfare led him to become the advisor for the Continental Congress on naval regulations.
John Paul Jones quickly became notorious among the British as an American pirate when he sailed for France with orders to “assist the American cause however possible.” A few months after his arrival in European waters, he made his way into the Irish Sea, crushing merchant vessels, and raiding northern British sea towns.
From here they made their way into Scotland, where Jones planned to capture one of the local noblemen for ransom. Unfortunately, that nobleman was not at home during the raid, so Jones and his men were forced to settle for confiscating all his silver. The wife of the nobleman was at home, however, and wrote into account how Jones and his men treated her with respect and dignity, even while they took all their valuables. After the war, Jones used his own money to repay the silver stolen from the estate, with a letter apologizing to both the nobleman and his wife.
In August 1779, John Paul Jones took command of the Bonhomme Richard in France and set sail for the British Isles. It was his time on this vessel that would make him truly infamous.
Jone’s fleet intercepted a British merchant fleet guarded by HMS Serapis and HMS Countess of Scarborough shortly after arrival in the British Isles. The battle that ensued cost Jones all but three of his forty-two guns. He made the decision to ram his ship into the Serapis, rendering both ships out of commision. The British officers yelled at Jones to surrender to which Jone’s replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” During the chaos, a crew member from Jone’s ship was able to get aboard the Serapis, and drop a grenade into the ship's gun powder storage. The explosion took out most of the Serapis’ guns. Stunned by how fiercely John Paul Jones and his men fought, the British surrendered. The Bonhomme Richard wasn’t able to be saved, and as a result Jones took command of the Serapis.
After a life full of maritime adventure, John Paul Jones passed away in Paris at the age of 47 in July 1792. Pierrot Francois Simoneau, an admirer of Jones’ actions against the British, paid 460 francs to mummify his body and make it more identifiable should America want to recover their hero. Unfortunately, with the chaos of the ensuing French Revolution all documentation on Jones’ resting place was lost.
United States Ambassador to France, Horace Porter felt a deep sense of humiliation that the grave of Jones had been lost to the American people. Under his direction began a systematic search that would go on for almost six years. When the original burial place had finally been located in 1905, gangs of workmen tunneled deep under streets, alleys, and shops to locate the casket. President Theodor Rosevelt had John Paul Jones brought back to America for his final resting place at the Naval Academy at Annapolis.