The Bonhomme Richard Flag Hoax
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 3
A Mystery Unravels
FLAGS OF JOHN PAUL JONES
Sometimes a post card can throw off your whole day. This one did. A SeacoastNH readers sent us this century old postcard reported showing the Bonhomme Richard. It took awhile to whittle the facts away from the fiction, Here’s how we pieced together the hoax.
UPDATE: Behind the Stafford Flag Hoax
The Mystery Begins
The postcard shows a draped flag, a rifle, a spinning wheel and the back of what looks to be an elderly lady in a bonnet. The caption reads: "Mrs. H. Stafford and Paul Jones Flag, Oak Bluffs, Mass."
Right off we wanted to know: (1) Who is Mrs. Stafford?; (2) Why does she have John Paul Jones' flag?; (3) What is she doing in Martha's Vineyard?; and (4) Why the heck does she have her back to the camera?
The Portsmouth Connection
New Hampshire has its own John Paul Jones flag story. The legend of the Helen Seavey quilting party, according to scholars, can be traced to the fertile imagination of Augustus C. Buell who published a two-volume biography of John Paul Jones in 1900. But modern historians seriously doubt that the women of Portsmouth sewed the flag for the sloop of war Ranger using material from their own petticoats.
It is a sexy and patriotic tale, the kind that was very appealing to American audiences during the romantic Colonial Revival era. Stories of women with early flags like Betsy Ross and Barbara Fritchie were popular tales at the time. The fats are that the Ranger was built in Portsmouth Harbor and it did bear the first official "stars and stripes" flag as defined by the new US Congress. No evidence of a Portsmouth "quilting party" has, however, surfaced and it is likely a local legend. So is the story of Mrs. Stafford’s flag equally unlikely?
The Serapis Flag
After the capture of HMS Drake by the Ranger, the ship and most crew members returned to Portsmouth. Jones stayed in France where, with Ben Franklin's help, he used French funds to buy another warship from the Dutch. He called this one Bonhomme.
Did the Ranger flag make its way onto the Bonhomme? We can only speculate. It seems most likely that the Ranger flag returned here on the Ranger and a new flag was created for the Bonhomme in France. The great inventor Ben Franklin, it has often been suggested, tinkered with the flag design there.
We do not know what flag flew on the Ranger or on the Bonhomme, but Jones own report tells us that the ""colors" of the Bonhomme went down with the ship. Although Jones defeated the British ship Serapis during his next famous battle, the Bonhomme sank and he took over the British ship Serapis which he delivered to the port of Texel in Holland.
The image of the "Serapis flag" configuration comes from Dutch records. When the tattered ship arrived at Texel after the battle, the British ambassador asked that the "pirate" Jones be taken into custody since his ship bore the flag of an unrecognized foreign country. With no love lost for the British, the Dutch sent an artist to sketch the flag on the Serapis and enter it into their record books. When the authorities checked the next day, sure enough, the Serapis appeared to be from a newly recognized foreign power known as the United Stares of America.
Was this the Ranger flag? Unlikely. Did the Bonhomme flag survive, despite eyewitness reports of its loss? Unlikely. Was a backup flag made during Jones year-long wait in France, or was it hastily prepared aboard the Serapis as it limped toward Holland? And how, once again, did it end up in the Stafford family relics in the early 20th century?
The Stafford Flag
Experts tell us today that the Stafford flag never flew on the Bonhomme Richard, although for a while even major museums were fooled. Eighty years after the battle, the flag was produced by descendants of James Stafford who had reportedly been a midshipmen on John Paul Jones flagship during the Serapis battle, though he is not listed in the roster. According to the story, Stafford had saved the flag after the battle and it was later presented to him -- and surprisingly not to John Paul Jones -- in 1784 by a committee of the US Congress.
A piece of the Stafford "Bonhomme flag" was exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. Another piece had earlier been cut off and given to President Abraham Lincoln. It reportedly ended up in the Smithsonian Institution, according to printed reports, where it was on display as the authentic article. Scholars later disputed the authenticity of the flag in a letter to the museum and it was withdrawn from view in 1942. But a check with the Smithsonian says it was not displayed there at any time.
Even in the postcard it is easy to see this is not the "Serapis" flag. Why it is presented here in Martha's Vineyard -- we still don't know. The librarian at the Oak Bluffs Library there tells us that the town did not receive its name until 1907, so the postcard is more recent than that date. And why is Mrs. Stafford turned with her back to the camera? Is it really her? We may not only have a fake flag here, but a fake owner as well.
The facts will surface; time will tell. Wasn't it Teddy Roosevelt who said that things stay the same, only history changes? Or was that Teddy Roosevelt, or maybe Teddy Kennedy? As readers send us new facts, we'll keep changing this article. Stay tuned.
Primary Source: The History of United States Flag from the Revolution to the Present, Including a Guide to its Use and Display, by Milo M. Quaife, Melvin J. Weig and Roy E. Appleman, Harper & Rowe, New York, 1961.
Article by J. Dennis Robinson. Research assistance by Marcia Jepp of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Thanks for this postcard to Dick Lightle
Copyright © 1999 SeacoastNH.com. Updated 2005
CONTINUE for Update with Much More info on the Stafford Flag
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