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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.


The Willie Jones Legend (Continued)

jpj with rowdy crewmen

All washed up

Although a prolific letter writer, John Paul Jones offered few clues about the lost period of his life after he fled the admiralty court in the West Indies.  He later recalled "that great misfortune of my life" in a letter to Benjamin Franklin, but with few details. I have roughly 50 biographies of Jones in my library and most of the ones I checked assume that the young captain was acting in self defense. He killed an attacking crewman with his broadsword. Most sources also suggest that he fled the West Indies and briefly went "incognito" (Jones uses the term "incog" in his letters) at the advice of a friend in Tobago. To protect his identity he added a common surname and called himself  "John Jones" until the heat was off. He was still John Jones in 1775. Because there was a John Jones on every block, perhaps the captain decided then to expand his name to John Paul Jones in order to distinguish himself before receiving his first American naval commission later that year.

Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, Jones' best known biographer, was so annoyed by the persistent Willie Jones myth that he debunked it in a 1959 scholarly essay. Former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, who now teaches journalism at Princeton, doesn't even mention "Cousin Willie" in his recent biography of John Paul Jones. When Thomas was promoting his book in 2003, maritime expert Nate Hazen and I showed the author around historic Portsmouth. I asked Thomas about the missing 20 months and he responded like a journalist -- no facts, no story. There's another legend that Jones became a pirate during this period, Thomas pointed out, or that he joined a traveling theatre troupe. The Willie Jones legend wasn't worth repeating.

But legends are like weeds. They fill in where facts fail. And they are impossible to kill. Over the years I've received dozens of letters from people named Jones who swear they are descendants of the "Father of the American Navy." Their evidence is usually a tall tale told by a grandparent who heard the story as a child, sometimes accompanied by a relic like a souvenir plate or a illustration cut from an old book. But Jones never married and had no legitimate children that we know of, so he has no direct descendants named Jones or anything else, except those relatives of his sisters, the Pauls of Scotland. The Willie Jones theory first pops up as an oral tradition among North Carolina Joneses around 1843 along with seemingly "authentic" Jones' flags, fake artifacts, and countless tall tales.  I know I'll get more letters, but those are the facts.

In another version, John Paul was somehow shipwrecked and cast up on a beach at Halifax, North Carolina where the Jones brothers lived. He became a beachcomber, wandering the shoreline until Willie Jones "adopted" and educated him. In still another version, the young sailor was attracted to Willie's wife Mary and changed his name in her honor. This story suits those who prefer to think of the vertically-challenged Captain Jones as a ladies' man, linked to Dorothea Dandridge (later wife of Patrick Henry), to Lady Selkirk of Scotland (whose husband Jones tried unsuccessfully to kidnap), and to Czar Catherine the Great (who kicked Jones out of Russia over a trumped-up sex scandal with an underage housemaid).  It's colorful stuff.

Continue Willie Jones Legend

Busting the Willie Jones Legend (continued)



Blame it on Mr. Buell

willie jones of north carolinaIn debunking the Willie Jones myth, Samuel Eliot Morison and other historians point to the fact that Willie Jones was not wed to his wife Mary and did not live in the "The Grove" in North Carolina because it was not even built until 10 years after John Paul Jones was reportedly there. Scholars generally agree that John Paul changed his name to John Jones upon his arrival in America or before.  Morison offers a step-by-step explanation as to how the Willie Jones myth evolved.


As movers and shakers in the American Revolution, Willie and John Paul may certainly have met, Morison says. Anything is possible. But there is nothing to document the North Carolina claim, other than hearsay and family gossip, while all the facts indicate that the story is simply wishful thinking. Everybody wants to be related to a hero. Having corresponded with dozens of Jones family members who believe they are blood relatives of the famous captain, I'm inclined to agree with America's foremost scholars.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Willie Jones story was Augustus C. Buell. My readers may recall his name from a previous article here. Buell published his two-volume biography of John Paul Jones in 1900. It was immediately attacked by experts as fraudulent. Buell was exposed in the New York Times for faking his sources and attacked by historians as "one of the most villainous practitioners of the hoax, documentary forgery, and the big lie." Buell not only made up facts, but he invented footnotes to letters and books to support his lies.  Buell died in 1904. When the body of John Paul Jones was discovered under the streets of Paris one year later, Buell's fraudulent biography went back on the bestseller list. When Jones' corpse was shipped to Annapolis, MD and installed in an ornate tomb, even President Teddy Roosevelt and the officers of the United States Navy were quoting Buell.

It was Buell who perpetuated the legend that the first American flag was created by a group of patriotic Portsmouth girls who sewed the Ranger flag from their petticoats. Buell even made up the names of the young ladies in the quilting party to make it sound realistic. But they never existed. And yet a plaque relating this great historic event in 1913 was attached to the side of the John Paul Jones House in Portsmouth. It is there still.

Weeds thrive online. A quick tour of the Internet shows that the Willie Jones legend is alive and well. One popular home schooling site has even reprinted portions of Buell's 1900 biography online as "proof" that the story is true. So beware of facts quoted on the Internet. And watch out for facts embossed on brass plaques and carved in stone monuments. Question what you read in books and newspapers. And dare I say, take the colorful tales your grandparents tell with a good-sized grain of salt.


KEY SOURCES: "The Willie Jones-John Paul Jones Tradition," by Samuel Eliot Morison, William & Mary Quarterly, April 1959 and John Paul Jones & His Ancestry, by William R. Jones, 1927.

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on and in local stores.

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