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The Helen Seavey Quilting Party

Flag Quilting Party -- Not
Lies, More Lies and Legends
JOHN PAUL JONES FLAG

Here is the complete text of the Portsmouth legend that refuses to die. It is the story of the "quilting party" of girls who reportedly sewed their silk dresses into the stars and stripes carried aboard the Ranger in 1777 by Captain John Paul Jones. It isn’t true. But here it is for your analysis.

 

 

 

READ: The Ranger Flag poem
READ: Unfirling Paul Jones Flags

 

Help Us Solve This Mystery

We need help tracking down the origin of this Portsmouth legend. The story appears to have no basis in fact. It appeared as a footnote in the notoriously inaccurate biography of John Paul Jones by "historian" Augustus C. Buell. While Buell’s tendency to fabricate history is well established, the story of the Helen Seavey quilting party may be based somewhere in reality. It appears to be adapted from the Betsy Ross story. Buell even sets his final scene that takes place at the home of "the Ross family".

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!

A.C. BuellRather than fashion the story out of thin air, it is possible that Buell picked up the legend somewhere else – but where? It had to appear in an account published before 1900. Buell’s use of girls with local-sounding names may be clever lying, or did they really exist? Was there a Helen Seavey who was married in May 1777 as Buell contents? If so, to whom? Did Elijah Hall really have a niece named Dorothy? Buell so expertly mixes fact and fiction that the story has yet to be dissected more than a century later.But so far, all attempts to track down these imaginary women have come up empty.

It is true that John Paul Jones was appointed to captain the Ranger by Congressional order on June 14, 1777. That same day the Congress issued the configuration of the new American flag.

Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison notes in his biography of Jones that Buell made up more false tales about Jones than all other Jones’ biographers combined. He may be "the father of lies" Morison says. He implies that Buell purposely falsified dozens of references -- letters, song lyrics, dates, crew lists, imagined meetings, documents, etc. Morison lists many of these false statements in the appendix to his well-researched 1959 book.

Still this myth offers a master’s degree thesis in the making for some enterprising history student. Even assuming that Buel fabricated the Helen Seavey story, we’d love to know what impact the legend had on future writers, on the city of Portsmouth and elsewhere. It is possible that Buell’s lie saved the John Paul Jones House museum from destruction in 1917. We await your research results.
-- Notes by J.Dennis Robinson

SEE ALSO: The Willie Jones Myth Exposed
SEE ALSO: The Bonhomme Richard Flag Hoax

Ranger Flag (early 20th century romantic interpretation) / SeacaostNH.com

THE PORTSMOUTH QUILTING PARTY LEGEND
Excerpted from John Paul Jones
by Augustus Buell

The "unconquered and unstricken flag" that went down with the Bon Homme Richard was the same one which the girls of Portsmouth made from slices of their best silk gowns, and presented to Jones to hoise on the Ranger, July 4 1777, and he considered it his personal property — or, perhaps, the property of the girls who made it — intrusted to his keeping. On relinquishing command of the Ranger in 1778, he kept this flag with him, and used it at l’Orient when he "broke his pennant" to commission the old Richard. It was made by a "quilting party" according to specification which Jones Furnished. The thirteen white stars in the "New Constellation" were cut from the bridal-dress in which Helen Seavey had been wedded in May, 1777, to a young officer of the New Hampshire Line. Of the "quilting party" who made that flag we can find but five names — Mary Langdon, Caroline Chandler, Helen Seavey, Augusta Peirce, and Dorothy Hall (niece of Elijah Hall, second lieutenant of the Ranger).

This was the "first edition" of the Stars and Stripes that Europe ever saw; the first to be saluted by the guns of a European naval power; but, far beyond that, and beyond anything, it was the first and the last flag that ever went down or ever will go down flying on the ship that conquered and captured the ship that sunk her.

When Jones returned to this country in the Ariel, February, 1781, he found Miss Langdon a guest of the Ross family, whose house was always his home when in Philadelphia. By way of apology he explained to Miss Langdon that his most ardent desire had been to bring that flag home to America, with all its glories, and give it back untarnished into the fiar hands that had given it to him nearly four years before. "But, Miss Mary," he said, "I couldn’t bear to strip it from the poor old ship in her last agony, nor could I deny to my dead on her decks, who had given their lives to keep it flying, the glory of taking it with them."

"You did exactly right, Commodore!" exclaimed Miss Langdon. "That flag is just where we all wish it to be — flying at the bottom of the sea over the only ship that ever sunk in victory. If you had taken it from her and brought it back to use, we would hate you!"

Augustus C. Buell
Paul Jones, Father of the American Navy, Volumne 1
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901
Footnote to pages 244 – 245

PICTURE SOURCES:
(1) Top image is 19th century depiction of Betsy Ross.

(2) Picture of Augustus Buell courtesy of Terry Heller at
The Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project
Heller notes that South Berwick, Maine author Sarah Orne Jewett was also influenced by Buell. She borrows from his 1900 biography for her novel about John Paul Jones "The Tory Lover". She also corresponded with Buell.

(3) Picture of Quilting Party aboard Ranger
From "Famous Painting of the Revolution"
Advertising pamphlet painting by Clyde DeLand
© 1929 American Eagle, The Continental, Fidelity-Phenix and First American Fire Insurance Companies of America
Courtesy SeacoastNH.com Image Library

 

 

 

 

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