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Unfurling the Flags of Paul Jones

John Paul Jones Flag /

Flags, bits of colored cloth, carry awesome emotional power. Americans take comfort in patriotic flag displays. Images of Old Glory are among the most memorable American icons -- with George Washington at Valley Forge, frozen in the vacuum of the Moon or fluttering from a piece of Japanese drainpipe above the hills of Iwo Jima.




VISIT: Our extensive John Paul Jones section

Stories of the earliest American flags are often wrapped in controversy. Did Philadelphia's Betsy Ross really sew the first 13-star flag? Many historians are now dubious. Did a 95-year old Barbara Fritchie of Maryland really protect her Civil War flag by saying "shoot if you must this old gray head" as in the poem by John Greenleaf Whittier? Not likely.

Navy JackAlthough he was a Scott, never an American citizen, John Paul Jones is wrapped in the history of our flag. The connection began on December 3, 1775 when at Philadelphia, a young lieutenant Jones raised the first Grand Union flag aboard an American warship ALFRED. Sketches of this event often show Jones, who was not captain of the ship at the time, raising a Revolutionary War "Navy Jack". That early flag shows a slithering rattlesnake with the motto "Don't Tread on Me."

Grand UnionScholars, however, favor the Grand Union as the most likely image connected with Jones here since it was popular early in the Revolution. The design is really just the British Union flag (a blue "X" combined with a red cross) adapted with 13 red and white stripes. Early revolutionaries, remember, still thought of themselves as Englishmen fighting off unfair taxes.

Jones next flag date was June 14, 1777. On that day the Continental Congress, hoping to promote a sense of unity among a nation of disparate loyalties, adopted an official flag. The order reads -- "Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."

On that same day, the US Congress named Paul Jones commander of the ship RANGER in Portsmouth, NH. It was an accident of fate, but not for writer Augustus C. Buell. More than a century after the event, in 1900, Buell published his popular two-volume biography of Jones, much of it sheer fabrication.

Betsy Ross Flag"That flag and I are twins," Buell quotes from a supposed letter by Jones, "born in the same hour from the same womb of destiny. We cannot be parted in life or in death."

It's a thrilling patriotic sound bite. Too bad Jones didn't say it. Historians now agree that much of Buell's biography was simply made up. It was Buell who created the Jones letter describing the qualities of a naval officer. (This letter was memorized by cadets at Annapolis as gospel for decades and helped earn Jones the often-disputed title "Father of the American Navy".) And it was Buell who said the Helen Seavey Quilting Party of Portsmouth sewed the famous Ranger flag "from slices of their best silk gowns". Buell even listed the girls by name, and recounted that one young seamstress even sacrificed her wedding dress to create the red, white and blue. The story, though romantic, has never been substantiated.

Hopkinson FlagAccording to Buell, Jones promised the Portsmouth girls that he would return the flag someday, then sailed off to France in RANGER in 1777. But when he returned to Portsmouth in 1782, he explained that the flag went down on his ship BONHOMME RICHARD after a bloody battle off the British Isles. Jones (at least in Buell's vivid imagination) said that he "could not deny to the dead on her decks, who had given their lives to keep it flying, the glory of taking it with them."

"Buell is absolutely untrustworthy," says John Paul Jones historian William Gilkerson. "A lot of the other biographies since have drawn things from Buell and that taints them too."

Gilkerson should know. He is one of America's most respected maritime artists. In his colorful book, "The Ships of John Paul Jones" (1987) Gilkerson illustrated and discussed every single ship associated with Jones' career, right down to the rigging, flags, cannons and mariners’ costumes -- the culmination of a life's research. Now in his 60s, Gilkerson lives in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia.

"He has haunted me all my life," the artist and sailor says of John Paul Jones. "But I had the feeling that I did get to know him."

Gilkerson's work on Jones has become the standard for authenticity. In fact, Gilkerson's pictures hang beside John Paul Jones tomb in the crypt below the chapel at Annapolis. Jones, he says, was "your basic warrior."


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