The Flags of John Paul Jones
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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. 



Ranger or serapis flag of John Paul Jones


Haunted by Jones 

"Buell is absolutely untrustworthy," says John Paul Jones expert William Gilkerson. He should know. A sailor and writer, Gilkerson is also one of America's most respected maritime artists. In his classic book, The Ships of John Paul Jones (1987) Gilkerson illustrated and discussed every single ship associated with Jones' naval career, right down to the rigging, flags, cannon, and the sailor's clothing and weaponry. Now in his 70s, Gilkerson lives in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia.

"He has haunted me all my life," Gilkerson says of John Paul Jones. "But I had the feeling that I did get to know him." Gilkerson's work on Jones has become the standard for authenticity. In fact, Gilkerson's pictures hang beside John Paul Jones' tomb in the crypt below the chapel at Annapolis. Jones, he says, was "your basic warrior."

"He did everything he could for his crew, but he was a very stern commander all the time. He was very hard-ass," 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.

"I don't think he [Jones] was particularly patriotic to the United States at all," Gilkerson says. "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." 

Unfurling the Ranger flag 

So what did the original Ranger flag from Portsmouth look like?  No one knows, Gilkerson says. According to Jones' own report, the flag on the Bonhomme Richard 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. (But the "Stafford Flag" hoax is a story for another day.)

Remember that Jones, and what was left of the American and British crews, all sailed the heavily damaged HMS Serapis into the Dutch port at Texel a week after the battle. The British Ambassador there insisted that Jones be arrested as a pirate, since he represented no known country -- and he 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 ship Serapis. The Dutch official slipped the sketch into his record books in the nick of time, proving that the captured British ship was indeed an American prize.

That unique American flag, as depicted in the Dutch record book, 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-point stars, the 13 stars in this illustration have eight points. Historians often attribute the design of this  one-of-a-kind flag to Benjamin Franklin, since he described a similar one in a letter to a French official. Jones, who had named the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Franklin, likely adopted this flag because it was created by his friend and mentor, Mr. Franklin. 

Gilkerson agrees. After long and careful research, he adopted the Franklin flag into his precise illustrations of Ranger and Bonhomme.  Whatever flag Jones brought from Portsmouth, he says, he likely swapped it in France for Franklin's unique design. The red-white-and-blue stripe design is often called the "Serapis Flag." In an edition of flag stamps a decade ago, the U.S. Postal Service referred to this design as the "John Paul Jones Flag." 

The modern Stars & Stripes 

A second American ship, the Alliance, accompanied John Paul Jones into the battle in England. It's flag had the same eight-point stars, but its stripes were read and white like the flag we know today.

"Standardization is a modern concept that just didn't exist then," Gilkerson adds. "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 American flag we know today, but with the addition of many new stars.

John Paul Jones returned to Portsmouth as a conquering hero in 1782, this time to captain the huge 74-gun warship America being built at Kittery. The largest ship of its kind yet built in the world, America was 56 feet wide by 182 feet.  To celebrate the Fourth of July, historian Charles Brewster tells us, Jones fired guns off the deck of the America while it was still under construction. Fond of celebrations, Jones put on a fireworks display at his own expense that was seen by all the citizens assembled on the riverbanks in Portsmouth.

But he never got the chance to sail her. After a year overseeing the final details and launch, as the American Revolution reached its conclusion, Jones' promised ship was given to the French. Jones later fought for Russia under czar  Catherine the Great. He died in Paris in 1792, forgotten by the new American nation.

In 1905 Jones' mummified body was exhumed, photographed, and autopsied in Paris, then shipped back to the United States with great pomp and ceremony. His coffin was put on public display by President Theodore Roosevelt, wrapped one final time in the American flag.


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).

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.