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How John Paul Became John Paul Jones

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

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