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How John Paul Became John Paul Jones

john paul aka jones top pictureHISTORY MATTERS

Some topics are born into trouble. You'll see what I mean in a moment. This week, for example, I got a letter from a reader in North Carolina who upbraided me for daring to suggest that the Portsmouth Powder Alarm of 1774 was the first armed conflict of the American Revolution. That's how this all got started. (Continued below)

Hey, it wasn't my idea. Locals have been making that claim for two centuries. Today a number of important historians with impressive credentials agree. Shots were fired at Fort William & Mary, gunpowder was stolen, and the King's flag was torn down four months before the battles at Lexington and Concord.

Not so, according to my North Carolina reader. The first armed insurrection against the King was the Battle of Alamance in North Carolina on Mary 16, 1771. A stone marker erected there in 1880 declares that Alamance was the "First Battle of the Revolution." But the longer I study history, the less I trust old stone markers and bronze plaques. So I googled it. Modern historians generally disagree.

Alamance was clearly a grassroots uprising by discontented farmers called "Regulators." They fought bravely against the superior militia of the royal governor of North Carolina. But their beef was with local sheriffs and tax collectors, not with the King of England. The Regulators showed that many American colonists were discontented and willing to take up arms against authority. But they did not espouse a new form of government or combine organized forces to establish a new nation.

Who was Willie Jones?

jpj fighting with crewmanI'm not picking on North Carolina, but while we're on the topic of Revolutionary War legends, I must tackle Willie Jones. This story has been bugging me for years. Willie (pronounced Wyley) was a radical leader during the run-up to the American Revolution in 1774 and 1775. Think of him as the Samuel Adams or Patrick Henry of North Carolina.  Willie and his brother Allen were wealthy slave-holding aristocrats who reportedly befriended a young Scottish sailor named John Paul around 1773.  John Paul was reportedly a long-lost cousin of Willie Jones. According to one version of the story, Paul Jones hung out with the Jones brothers in their mansion at "The Grove" for two years. Living with the families of these cultured men and women, the story goes, John Paul was transformed "from the rough and reckless mariner into the polished man of society."

As the Revolution approached, the Jones brothers reportedly pulled a few strings and helped young John Paul get his first job with the Continental Navy -- and a great career was launched. In appreciation for their guidance while staying at "The Grove" in Halifax, NC, the young captain, family legend claims, officially changed his name to John Paul Jones.

The story neatly fills in the "lost years" in the life of John Paul Jones who disappears from the record books in the West Indies in 1773 and reappears on the radar in Philadelphia almost two years later as captain of the ship Alfred. He arrived in Portsmouth, NH to captain the Ranger in 1777 and sailed from here into the history books by attacking the British in their own waters.  We know that young John Paul was captain of the merchant ship Betsy before he came to America. He was accused of murdering one of his crewman and bound over for trial at Tobago in 1773. Rather than wait for his trial, he took off for Fredericksburg, Virginia, historians believe, where his elder brother William Paul, a tobacco farmer, had recently died. The next 20 months are a matter of speculation.

Continue WILLIE JONES LEGEND

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