SeacoastNH Home

Seacoast New Hampshire
& South Coast Maine

facebook logo

facebook logo

SEE ALL SIGNED BOOKS by J. Dennis Robinson click here
Unfurling the Flags of Paul Jones


"He did everything he could for his crew, but he was a very stern commander all the time. He was very hardass," the author says, noting that Jones did not much like the men he worked with in Portsmouth and they did not like him. He compares the vertically-challenged Scotsman to the character played by George C. Scott in the movie version of "Patton", standing in front of a gigantic American flag.

Jones with generic flag from late 19th century text ' color by"I don't think he (Jones) was particularly patriotic to the United States at all. In fact, he really liked France. He liked being known as a commander who was skillful…but he needed a flag to wave and a reason to go fight somebody."

Gilkerson defines Jones driving attitude throughout his career as: "Give me a chance, point me in the right direction, and let me show you what I can do."

Jones got that chance in November 1777 when he sailed with 140-something men from Portsmouth to Europe aboard RANGER . What flag the ship carried, Gilkerson says, no one knows -- though it likely followed the design set by Congress months before.

It was aboard RANGER early the following year that Jones made his next historic date with the American flag. On February 14, 1778 as he sailed toward his historic raid on Britain, Jones convinced the French fleet to salute his ship. This moment is generally regarded as the first time that a foreign power officially recognized the American flag. Jones then went on capture the British ship DRAKE in its own home waters. This and his bloodless attack on the ports near his birthplace earned him the reputation as "pirate", "traitor" and "terrorist" in the United Kingdom.

Serapis flagThe last chapter is the most mysterious for flag enthusiasts. With the RANGER on its way back to Portsmouth, Jones and his mentor Ambassador Benjamin Franklin, convinced the French to loan him another ship – renamed the BONHOMME RICHARD. In one of the goriest sea battles in naval history, Jones returned to England and defeated the British ship SERAPIS on September 23, 1779 . But the BONHOMME was so badly damaged that it sank two days later with its colors flying.

According to Jones own report, the US flag was shot away. Ironically a flag purported to be from the BONHOMME turned up in the Smithsonian Institution where it hung for decades until it was withdrawn as a fake in 1942. Now comes the fascinating part.

Jones, and what was left of the two crews, limped into the neutral Dutch board of Texel a week later. The British Ambassador there insisted that Jones be arrested as a pirate, since he represented no known country -- and carried an unknown flag. Being no friend of the British, as the story goes, a Dutch official quickly sent an artist to sketch the United States flag flying from the captured SERPIS. The Dutch official slipped the sketch into his record books in the nick of time, proving the ship was indeed an American prize -- and Jones won the day.

The SERAPIS flag in the Dutch records has never been seen before or since. It is an odd duck. It contained red, white and BLUE stripes in no particular order, and instead of five points -- the 13 stars have eight points. Historians attribute the design of this flag to Benjamin Franklin, since he described a similar one in a letter to a French official. Jones, who had named the BONHOMME in honor of Franklin, most likely went along with his mentor's flag design as well. Gilkerson, who has long studied the subject agrees and depicts this flag on the RANGER. Whatever flag Jones brought from Portsmouth, he says, he likely swapped it in France for Franklin's unique design. In a recent issue of flag stamps, the US Postal Service referred to this design as the "John Paul Jones Flag."

A second American ship, the ALLIANCE, accompanied Jones into the battle and returned with the SERAPIS to Texel. Its flag, except for the same eight-pointed stars, looks very much like the American flag we know today.

"It’s significant to the story that the ALLIANCE flew one kind o flag and the BONHOMME flew another," Gilkerson says. "Standardization is a modern concept that just didn't exist then. Modern historians are always looking for the quintessential item for a certain age -- and there really isn’t one."

That standardization did not exist until 1912, when the United States officially specified the precise details of the flag we know today – with the addition of many stars since.

"The flags were very much more important in battle situations than they are now," Gilkerson concludes. "It was a rallying point and the epicenter of morale. You wanted to keep your colors at all costs."

The BONHOMME was a Dutch ship, purchased by the French and captained by a Scott -- but it bore an American flag. That made it an American ship. The fact that British Captain Pearson of the SERAPIS was forced to strike his colors in defeat and surrender to Jones, set off shock waves in the United Kingdom. The realization that Americans were desperate or capable enough to traverse the Atlantic Ocean and strike at the heart of the Royal Navy on its home turf -- that scared people.

The BONHOMME flag reappeared, miraculously, during the Civil War, but it tirned out to be a hoax. The flag hung in the Smithsonian Museum until World War II, when it was finally removed. Jones himself, meanwhile, had returned. Though his death in 1792 was largely ignored in America, his body turned up in Paris in 1905. It was transferred to the United States by a fleet of escort ships. Jones coffin was put on public display, wrapped in his old friend -- the American flag.

Copyright (c) 2005 First published here September 2001. All rights reserved.

Serapis flag as it appeared in Texel in 1779

SOURCES: The History of the United States Flag by Milo Quaife, Melvin J. Weig and Roy E. Applemann (1961); John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography by Samuel Morison (1959); The Ships of John Paul Jones by William Gilkerson (1987) and John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard by Jean Boudriot, illustrated by William Gilkerson (1987).

Please visit these ad partners.

News about Portsmouth from

Sunday, February 18, 2018 
Please update your Flash Player to view content.
Please update your Flash Player to view content.
Please update your Flash Player to view content.

Copyright ® 1996-2016 All rights reserved. Privacy Statement
email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Site maintained by ad-cetera graphics