By D. Allan Kerr
John Paul Jones is to America’s Navy what the mythic Paul Bunyan was to the continent’s lumberjack trade – if Jones hadn’t actually existed, some imaginative soul would have been obliged to create him.
The fiery Scottish badass was portrayed by foes as a pirate and an outlaw, but is today remembered as the Father of the United States Navy. And the 18-gun frigate Ranger, which brought him his first fame and notoriety during the American Revolution was built in my adopted hometown of Kittery, Maine.
A small park near Memorial Bridge, which connects Kittery to New Hampshire, bears Jones’ name. Interpretive historical panels share the story of the captain and his ship.
However, the markers have been corroded by years of New England weather and need to be replaced. A fundraising effort for the new panels is currently under way thru something I like to call the JPJP (John Paul Jones Park) Project.
As Kittery is home to the illustrious Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, it makes sense for the Navy’s most famous hero to be honored here as well.
Founding Father John Adams, always gifted in his way with words, once described Jones as “leprous with vanity,” and he actually liked the controversial naval officer.
Jones was a fascinating character – bold, petty, hot-tempered, chivalrous, visionary and absolutely fearless in combat.
In the bloodiest moments of his most famous naval battle, aboard the Bonhomme Richard, Jones attempted to shoot one of his own crewmen for trying to raise the flag of surrender. Fortunately, the captain had already discharged his weapon during the battle. Instead he hurled his pistol at the man’s head, knocking the offending sailor unconscious, and rallied his men to victory.
This future hero was born John Paul, a humble gardener’s son, on July 6, 1747, at Arbigland, Scotland. He shipped out with the British merchant marine at the age of 13 and was master of a vessel at just 21 years old. For a time early in his career he served aboard slave ships, which he called the “abominable trade.”
He fled to America from Tobago in 1773 after killing a sailor with his sword during an attempted mutiny, later claiming it was an act of self-defense. He also added “Jones” to his name.
When the Colonies proclaimed their independence from Great Britain, Jones offered his services to the emerging young Continental Navy.
In 1777, construction of a ship originally to be called the Hampshire commenced on Badger’s Island, then known as Rising Castle Island, in Kittery. In June of that year, Congress appointed Jones captain of the vessel now dubbed the Ranger.
Kittery’s own General William Whipple – a former sea captain who signed the Declaration of Independence as New Hampshire’s representative to the Second Continental Congress – was charged with helping to find a crew for the new warship.
The local shipyard was owned by John Langdon of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who was another Founding Father, former member of the First Continental Congress and signer of the U.S. Constitution. Jones, being Jones, bickered repeatedly with Langdon throughout the construction process.
James Hackett of Exeter, New Hampshire, the master shipbuilder contracted by Langdon to construct the Ranger, was a fascinating individual in his own right. As a youth of just 15, Hackett joined the legendary Roger’s Rangers during the French and Indian War and survived several harrowing wartime escapades.
That is how the vessel captained by Jones acquired its name.
Although no design plans for the Ranger have ever turned up, we know she was a three-masted sloop of war a little more than 100 feet long. Most of the crew who signed on with Jones lived in the Piscataqua Region and none had Navy experience. While their new captain was consumed with visions of victory and glory, his crew was mostly interested in prize money to be earned from the sale of captured ships and cargo.
Jones and the Ranger departed for France on November 1, 1777. He was instructed by Congress – in orders delivered personally by his friend Whipple – to “Take, Sink, Burn or destroy all such of the enemies Ships, Vessels, goods and effects as you may be able.”
Whipple also asked the future Father of the United States Navy to pick up a few gloves and yards of silk in Paris for his wife.
Jones captured two British ships en route to France and in February 1778 the Ranger became the first ship under the new American flag to be saluted by a foreign power. This recognition was granted in the form of a nine-gun salute from the flagship of a French admiral.
That April, Jones and crew embarked on an audacious, one-ship raid on England itself, heading straight into the Irish Sea with the intention to destroy British shipping.
On one occasion, some of his crewmen – disillusioned by the lack of prizes they had envisioned – plotted a mutiny against their captain. Jones caught wind of the plan and when the leader made his move, Jones put his pistol to the sailor’s head. The mutiny ended then and there.
The crew proceeded to first raid the small British port of Whitehaven. Jones himself led the landing party, which rowed to shore in the early morning hours of April 23, 1778, spiked several cannons and set fire to a coal ship in the harbor. The crew barely escaped a mob of angry townspeople who chased them back to their boats, firing at them with the few remaining guns still operable.
From there, the Ranger crossed the bay to St. Mary’s Isle in Scotland, where Jones planned to kidnap a Scottish lord and exchange him for American prisoners. Unfortunately for Jones, the Earl of Selkirk happened to be away on business.
To appease his treasure-hungry crew, Jones allowed a couple of his officers to negotiate with the pregnant lady of the house for her expensive silver tea set. Upon hearing of Lady Selkirk’s courageous conduct during this exchange, Jones famously wrote her a letter expressing his admiration and promising to purchase and return the tea set with his own money, which he did.
On April 24, the Ranger engaged the 20-gun British warship HMS Drake near Carrickfergus, Ireland, and emerged victorious after the Drake’s two top officers were mortally wounded.
This battle was perhaps the most famous sea victory for the Colonies at the time, taking place in enemy waters and between two ships nearly equal in strength and size. Several warships were dispatched to capture the Ranger, but none came close. The Ranger returned to France with the Drake and about 200 prisoners and sank or captured a couple of merchant vessels.
As a military action, Jones’ foray did not have a huge impact on the war, but in terms of propaganda it was a huge success. Jones, who had once been one of their own, became the subject of numerous articles, caricatures and ballads in Great Britain and coastal towns shored up their defenses in advance of another possible attack by the “rogue” Jones.
Back in France, Jones reluctantly turned over command of the Ranger for the return trip to the Piscataqua River while he awaited a new ship. The frigate captured several more enemy ships during the Revolution, but in 1780 was herself captured by the British. For a time she sailed under the Royal Navy as the HMS Halifax, but was then sold as a merchant ship.
During its three years with the Continental Navy, the Ranger captured or sunk 30 enemy ships.
Jones would go on to even greater fame aboard the 42-gun Bonhomme Richard after his September 1779 victory over the 44-gun HMS Serapis.
It was during this battle that Jones, with his ship in flames and taking on water, is said to have offered his immortal retort when asked if he was ready to surrender: “I have not yet begun to fight!”
After the Revolutionary War ended, Jones fought on as an admiral with the Russian Navy under Catherine the Great. He eventually wound up back in Paris, where he died alone at the age of 45 on July 18, 1792.
His remains were finally escorted to the United States by a procession of American battleships in 1906 and interred at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, with grand ceremony. President Teddy Roosevelt, anxious to re-establish America as a sea power at the time, presided over the proceedings.
And now, John Paul Jones and his monument in Kittery need help with a makeover to ensure the Father of the Navy is remembered with pride in his American home.
Contributions for the new JPJP markers can be mailed to George Dow, KMIF, 1 Bartlett Road Kittery Point, ME, 03905. Checks should be made out to the nonprofit “Kittery Maine Improvement Foundation” with JPJP Project written in the memo line to clarify the intent of the donation.
D. Allan Kerr is a history buff (and as a matter of disclosure, the pest pushing to make the marker refurbishment a reality.) He is the author of Silent Strength: Remembering the Men of Genius and Adventure Lost in the World’s Worst Submarine Disaster.
Follow D. Allan Kerr on Twitter @Sloth_Blog, Facebook and seacoastonline.com