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The Flags of John Paul Jones

John Paul Jones raises flagHISTORY MATTERS 

Patriotic tales of American flags often come wrapped in myth and controversy. Did Philadelphia's Betsy Ross really sew the first 13-star flag? Not likely, historians generally agree. Did 95-year old Barbara Fritchie of Maryland really challenge Stonewall Jackson by waving a Union flag from her window in 1862? The facts suggest it never happened. (Read the story below) 


Right place, right time 

Among the most misunderstood flag bearers is John Paul Jones, arguably the most famous resident in Portsmouth history. And yet the so-called "Father of the American Navy" was never an American citizen at all. Born in Scotland, Jones began his complex connection to the evolving American flag in Philadelphia aboard a man-of-war originally named Black Prince.

John Paul Jones raises flagAt the outset of the American Revolution, the fledgling Continental Navy purchased Black Prince and renamed her Alfred. On December 3, 1775 a young lieutenant named John Paul Jones was given the honor of raising the first United States flag aboard Alfred. Illustrations often show Jones hauling up the "Navy Jack," flag with a rattlesnake insignia and the motto "Don't Tread on Me." In fact, Jones almost certainly raised a "Grand Union" flag. This popular early design was a combination of the British Union flag (a blue "X" with a red cross) set against 13 red and white stripes. 

On to Portsmouth 

Jones next important flag day came on June 14, 1777 when the Continental Congress adopted the nation's first official flag in an effort to promote unity among 13 very different colonies. The order read, "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." The vague description led to many early versions of the Stars & Stripes.

On that very day the U.S.  Congress named Paul Jones commander of the ship Ranger being built at Portsmouth Harbor.  The timing was another accident of fate for Jones, but that was not enough for "fraudulent historian" Augustus C. Buell. In his popular 1905 biography of John Paul Jones, Buell quoted a letter in which Jones reputedly wrote that "the flag and I are twins, born in the same hour from the same womb of destiny. We cannot be parted in life or in death."

It was a thrilling patriotic sound bite that is still quoted today. Unfortunately, Jones never wrote or said it. Much of Buell's biography was simply made up. It was Buell who also invented the story that a group of Portsmouth women sewed the famous Ranger flag "from slices of their best silk gowns". Buell even fabricated the names of the young women in the quilting party to make his fiction more believable. Buell died in 1905, but the lies he created live on. 

Into the history books 

According to Buell, Jones promised the Portsmouth girls that he would someday return their hand-sewn flag. That never happened. Jones did depart from this harbor in November 1777 aboard the Ranger with a reluctant crew from the Piscataqua region and sailed into the history books. On February 14, 1778, the flag aboard Ranger received a nine-gun salute at France, the first recognition of the official United States flag by a foreign power.

Jones went on to conduct a small one-ship raid on Great Britain and shocked the enemy when he defeated their warship HMS Drake just off the coast of England. Jones then returned to France, exchanged the Ranger for the Bon Homme Richard, and returned to battle the British. On September 23, 1779 In one of the most famous sea battles ever fought (and one of the bloodiest still in American naval history) Jones defeated HMS Serapis just off the British coast. His ship, the Bonhomme, was so badly damaged that it sank two days later with its colors flying.

Jones returned to Portsmouth in 1782 but he did not bring back the promised flag. It had gone down with another ship. Jones and his surviving crewman had to board the HMS Serapis that they then sailed into the neutral port at Holland.  According to Buell, Captain Jones "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."

But what did the Ranger and Bonhomme Richard flags look like? We get no help from historian Augustus Buell. 


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