John Paul Jones was a Revolutionary War hero known as the father of the U.S. Navy. Born in Scotland in 1747, Jones came to America as a merchant sailor. When the American Revolution broke out, Jones sided with the colonists and joined the Continental Navy, with his greatest victory coming from his against-all-odds defeat of the British warship Serapis in 1779. After the Continental Navy disbanded, Jones found his way to Paris where he died in 1792. Over one hundred years later, his remains were brought back to the United States where he was laid to rest at the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Maryland.
John Paul Jones: Early Years
John Paul Jones was born under the simple birth name of John Paul on July 6, 1747, in a small cottage in Arbigland, Scotland. While his father, John Paul Sr., worked as a gardener, Jones found his calling at sea, earning an apprenticeship with the British Merchant Marine at the age of 13.
His seafaring adventures would eventually take him to America and, like many other sailors before him, Jones got involved in the slave trade. However, the realities of human trafficking repulsed him, and he returned to shipping cargo duties.
In 1773 Jones was caught in a very difficult situation: he murdered a mutinous sailor on the island of Tobago in self-defense. Because Jones believed he wouldn’t receive a fair trial, he fled to America. It was there he added the last name “Jones” to conceal his identity.
Revolutionary War and the Continental Navy
Luckily for Jones, the American colonies were too busy stoking the flames of war with the British to have noticed his past. In 1775 the American Revolution broke out, and Jones—who could easily recall Britain’s cruel treatment of the Scots—sided with the colonists and joined the new Continental Navy.
With great skill and temerity, Jones began attacking British ships off the American coastline and expanded his operations from there. He captained the USS Providence, sailing to Nova Scotia and capturing British vessels.
Soon after, he took command of Ranger and set course to France, where his vessel was saluted by the French Admiral La Motte Piquet—the first American vessel ever to be recognized by a foreign power.
‘I have not yet begun to fight!’
In 1779 Jones would go down in history as one of the greatest naval commanders of the Revolutionary War. En route to raid British shipping, Jones’ warship, Bon Homme Richard (named after Benjamin Franklin), came head to head with the more powerful English warship HMS Serapis off the North Sea.
After three hours of relentless gunfire between the two vessels, Jones slammed Bon Homme into Serapis, strategically tying them together. Legend has it that when the British asked if Jones was ready to surrender, he famously responded: “I have not yet begun to fight!”
After one of Jones’ naval officers tossed a grenade onto Serapis, causing severe damage, it was the British that ultimately surrendered. Jones’ surprise victory against the better-equipped British naval ship had turned him into an international hero.
After the war ended, the Continental Navy dissolved due to lack of funds.
Jones set off for new adventures, briefly battling the Turks on behalf of Russia before temporarily settling in Paris as he made plans to return to America.
John Paul Jones: Death
While in Paris, Jones’ health took a turn for the worse. On July 18, 1792, he was found dead in his apartment at the age of 45. He was laid to rest in a French cemetery, but the plot of land was later sold and forgotten.
Over one hundred years would pass before the United States was able to recover Jones’ remains with the help of French officials. After much research, his body was located and exhumed, and to the surprise of French pathologists, Jones’ body was excellently preserved.
His initial autopsy concluded that the cause of his death was kidney failure, with later clinical studies believing his condition was exacerbated by a heart arrhythmia.
USS John Paul Jones
Commissioned in 1991, the USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53) is the latest destroyer named in honor of Jones. Three previous battleships also were named after him.
John Paul Jones. National Park Service.
“On This Day in 1792: U.S. Navy Founder John Paul Jones Dies.” The Scotsman.
“John Paul Jones: A Founder of the U.S. Navy.” Navy.mil.
John Paul Jones. U.S. Naval Academy.
“The Death of John Paul Jones and Resurrection as ‘Father of the U.S. Navy.’” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine.