John Paul Jones in Portsmouth
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
JOHN PAUL JONES WAS HERE
He didn’t stay anywhere long. John Paul Jones called himself a "citizen of the world". But twice he stayed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire for very long visits waiting to equip the historic RANGER and the fated AMERICA.
July 1777 - November 1777
August 1781- November 1782
MORE on John Paul Jones
He visited twice, spending a total of 18 months in the port city of New Hampshire. Though he often referred to himself as a "citizen of the world," John Paul Jones wrote that the happiest days in his short life were those spent in Paris, France and in Portsmouth. During both visits to Portsmouth, he divided his time between things social and things military. Jones' pleasures among the young ladies of New Hampshire apparently overbalanced his displeasure with prominent merchant shipbuilder John Langdon.
Waiting for the RANGER
Jones arrived from Philadelphia via Boston in 1777 when the nation was barely a year old. Portsmouth revolutionaries had only recently driven John Wentworth, the last of the British governors, from his home on Pleasant Street. Two of the young nation's first warships, "Raleigh" and "Ranger", were being completed in Langdon's boat yard across the Piscataqua on Badger's Island.
Best known for his capture of the British supply ship "Mellish,": the short, well dressed man with the Scottish accent would have been easy to spot around town. Historians speculate whether he first stayed at the local masonic lodge or Marquis of Rockingham Tavern or at the Purcell boarding house on Middle Street that now bears his name. Jones expected to sail quickly on to France and pick up a bigger ship, but the "Ranger," though launched, was far from ready for its maiden voyage. Sail cloth, supplies and crewmen were scarce. Sailors were much more inclined to sign on for shorter and more profitable privateering jaunts. Portsmouth families like the Langdons, Cutts and Salters were growing wealthy off privateer booty. Jones was forced to send agents to scour the local coastline, passing out advertising to potential crewman, promising them more than the shaky American Navy could possibly deliver.
Much of his time in Portsmouth, he wrote letters. An ambitious self-made man itching for action, Jones found himself so desperate for sailors that he wrote the state of NH begging permission to enlist soldiers from local forts to fill out his crew. He wrote letters entreating Congress for more funds and to speed Langdon's progress. He wrote letters suggesting ways to centralize and improve the Navy. He sent passionate protests over his lowly rank as 18th on the list of US naval commanders.
Jones perfectionism and demands did not play well with the powerful John Langdon. Jones was unhappy with the quality of "Ranger's" sails, with the size of her spars, with the cannons, with the paltry supply of rum for his crew of 150 men. When he attempted to pull rank on Langdon, the builder snapped back that he too knew "how to equip, govern, or fight a ship of war." This comment drove war veteran Jones into a frenzy, but did not speed the preparation of "Ranger." Jones became even more eager to leave when he learned of British Gen. Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga. He hoped to bring the news to France, but bad weather further delayed sailing. On November 1, 1777 an excited Jones and a reluctant Piscataqua crew departed Portsmouth for a voyage into the naval history books and capture of HMS Drake in British waters.
Waiting for the AMERICA
By the time he returned to New Hampshire four years later, John Paul Jones was known world wide for his tenacity and naval skill. His bold and brutal destruction of HMS Serapis was the source of ballads, books and paintings. He had been presented to French King Louis XVI at Versailles and invited to join the same lodge that welcomed Ben Franklin and Voltaire. His image had been cast into medals and sculpted into the famous bust by the artist Houdon.
To the biggest hero naturally went the biggest ship in the American Navy. Jones was commissioned as captain of the nation's first "ship of the line," the USS America. It had been under half-hearted and under-funded construction since just after Jones' first visit in 1777. After a side trip to visit Gen. George Washington on the battlefield in White Plains, NY Jones made his way by carriage from Philadelphia to Portsmouth. He arrived in August 1781 and with his steward took up residence in the fashionable home of the Widow Purcell, legend says, for $10 a week.
Jones fell right back into his dual role, charming local high society and battling ship builder John Langdon. Although Jones was staying only three blocks from where Langdon would build his downtown mansion the following year, they disagreed so hotly over the "America" that Jones eventually corresponded with Langdon via letters sent to military leaders back in Boston and Philadelphia.
His second stay in Portsmouth became an heroic war against frustration. Though famous, Jones was broke. Congress still owed him $15,000, a small fortune, in income and prize money from his six years of service including adventures aboard the "Ranger". Langdon, meanwhile, was threatening to scrap the unfinished 74-gun "America" if he did not receive immediate funds from Congress. Jones convinced his friend Revolutionary war financier Robert Morris to forward $10,000 to Langdon. Still only eight men worked on the huge ship and the funds were so quickly absorbed that Jones suggested to his superiors that the builder had funneled the money into private projects. He accused Langdon of purposely using inferior green wood on the warship to reduce costs which prompted an angry denial. When it was rumored that the British planned to sneak into Portsmouth harbor and burn the "America," Jones was forced to pay carpenters from his own pocket to guard the ship at night.
Langdon was the consummate politician, both revolutionary hero and conservative merchant, both abolitionist and slave owner. But Jones was not without his political ways, and soon became Seacoast, NH's premier party animal. He used the occasion of the birth of a son to Marie Antionette to throw a city-wide bash that included a full day of canon salutes, toasting and an evening dance aboard the decks of the dry docked warship. Months later Jones hosted another party celebrating the 4th of July.
In the long run, it was all for nothing. Shortly before the ship was to be launched, Jones got a crushing message. The US Congress had decided to give the ship "America" to the French to replace the "Magnifique," a French ship of the line that had recently run aground near Boston. With uncharacteristic restraint Jones questioned, the wisdom of the decision, but did not protest. Though he had helped oversee the building for over a year, right down to the design of its decorative wood carvings, Jones agreed to remain with the ship until its transfer to the French navy. He personally directed the very complex launching from the boatyard at Badger's Island which is today part of Kittery, Maine and connected to Portsmouth by the Memorial Bridge. In Jones' time the harbor was thinner and shallower with dangerous rocks, and the even more dangerous rapid tides of the Piscataqua. Though the 'America' was nearly half the width of the river, Jones' elaborate launching system succeeded after a false start, and the 'America,' still without sails or masts, was launched in October 1782.
Sadly, the ship was not a favorite among the French and, three years after its delivery Jones predictions proved true. The ship had already begun to suffer from dry rot. By this time, Jones himself was back in France, his own career having long ago peaked and only a toilsome stint in the Russian navy ahead of him.
Jones departure from Portsmouth was far from noble. A former crewman from the Bonhomme Richard sued Jones for nonpayment of wages. Under the advice of his attorney John Sullivan, Jones slipped out of town, never to return.
So how important was New Hampshire to the life of John Paul Jones? Jones answered this question as he asked another in a letter to a friend: "When the "America" was taken from me, I was deprived of my tenth command. Will posterity believe that out of this number the sloop of war "Ranger" was the best I was ever enabled by my country to bring into actual service?"
By J. Dennis Robinson
1. Brewster's Ramles #82 about America
2. John Paul Jones, A Sailor's Biography by Samuel Eliot Morison, Faber and Faber, 1959.
3. John Paul Jones: Fighter for Freedom and Glory by Lincoln Lorenz, US Naval Institute, Maryland, 1943.
4. John Paul Jones and the Ranger, edited by Joseph Sawtelle, Portsmouth Marine Society, Peter Randall
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