John Paul was born (he added "Jones" in later life to hide from law enforcement) on the estate of Arbigland near Kirkbean in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright on the southwest coast of Scotland. His father John Paul, Sr. was a gardener at Arbigland, and his mother was Jean McDuff (1708–1767). His parents married on November 29, 1733 in New Abbey, Kirkcudbright. Living at Arbigland at the time was Helen Craik (1751–1825), later a novelist.
John Paul started his maritime career at the age of 13, sailing out of Whitehaven in the northern English county of Cumberland as apprentice aboard Friendship under Captain Benson. Paul's older brother William Paul had married and settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the destination of many of the younger Jones' voyages.
For several years, John sailed aboard a number of British merchant and slave ships, including King George in 1764 as third mate and Two Friends as first mate in 1766. In 1768, he abandoned his prestigious position on the profitable Two Friends while docked in Jamaica. He found his own passage back to Scotland, and eventually obtained another position.
John Paul's career was quickly and unexpectedly advanced during his next voyage aboard the brig John, which sailed from port in 1768, when both the captain and a ranking mate suddenly died of yellow fever. John managed to navigate the ship back to a safe port and, in reward for this impressive feat, the vessel's grateful Scottish owners made him master of the ship and its crew, giving him 10 percent of the cargo. He then led two voyages to the West Indies before running into difficulty.
During his second voyage in 1770, John Paul viciously flogged one of his sailors, a carpenter, leading to accusations that his discipline was "unnecessarily cruel." These claims initially were dismissed, but his favorable reputation was destroyed when the sailor died a few weeks later. John Paul was arrested for his involvement in the man's death, and was imprisoned in Kirkcudbright Tolbooth, but later released on bail. The negative effect of this episode on his reputation is indisputable, although the man's death has been linked to other causes. The man who died of his injuries was not a usual sailor but an adventurer from a very influential Scottish family.
Leaving Scotland, John Paul commanded a London-registered vessel named Betsy, a West Indiaman mounting 22 guns, engaging in commercial speculation in Tobago for about 18 months. This came to an end, however, when John killed a mutineer crew member named Blackton with a sword in a dispute over wages. He claimed that it was in self-defense, years later in a letter to Benjamin Franklin describing this incident, but he was not willing to be tried in an Admiral's Court, where the family of his first victim had been influential. He felt compelled to flee to Fredericksburg, Province of Virginia, leaving his fortune behind.
He went to Fredericksburg to arrange the affairs of his brother, who had died there without leaving any relatives; and about this time he assumed the surname of Jones, in addition to his original surname. There is a long-held tradition in the state of North Carolina that John Paul adopted the name "Jones" in honor of Willie Jones of Halifax, North Carolina.
From that period, America became "the country of his fond election," as he afterwards expressed himself to Baron Joan van der Capellen tot den Pol. It was not long afterward that John Paul "Jones" joined the American navy to fight against Britain.
Sources struggle with this period of Jones' life, especially the specifics of his family situation, making it difficult to pinpoint historically Jones' exact motivations for emigrating to America. It is not known whether his plans were not developing as expected for the plantation, or if he was inspired by a revolutionary spirit.
What is clearly known is that Jones left for Philadelphia shortly after settling in North America to volunteer his services around 1775 to the newly founded Continental Navy, precursor to the United States Navy. During this time, the Navy and Marines were being formally established, and suitable ship's officers and captains were in great demand. Jones's potential would likely have gone unrecognized were it not for the endorsement of Richard Henry Lee, who knew of his abilities. With help from influential members of the Continental Congress, Jones was appointed as a 1st Lieutenant of the newly converted 24-gun frigate Alfred in the Continental Navy on December 7, 1775.
Jones sailed from the Delaware River in February 1776 aboard Alfred on the Continental Navy's maiden cruise. It was aboard this vessel that Jones took the honor of hoisting the first U.S. ensign over a naval vessel. He actually raised the Grand Union Flag, not the later and more familiar Flag of the United States.
The fleet had been expected to cruise along the coast but was ordered instead by Commodore Esek Hopkins to sail for The Bahamas, where Nassau was raided for its military supplies. The fleet had an unsuccessful encounter with a British packet ship on their return voyage. Jones was then assigned command of the sloop Providence. Congress had recently ordered the construction of thirteen frigates for the American Navy, one of which was to be commanded by Jones. In exchange for this prestigious command, Jones accepted his commission aboard the smaller Providence. During this six-week voyage, Jones captured sixteen prizes and inflicted significant damage along the coast of Nova Scotia.
Jones' next command came as a result of Commodore Hopkins's orders to liberate hundreds of American prisoners forced to labor in coal mines in Nova Scotia, and also to raid British shipping. On November 1, 1776, Jones set sail in command of Alfred to carry out this mission. Winter conditions prevented freeing the prisoners, but the mission did result in the capture of Mellish, a vessel carrying a vital supply of winter clothing intended for General John Burgoyne's troops in Canada.
Despite his successes at sea, Jones's disagreements with those in authority reached a new level upon arrival in Boston on December 16, 1776. While at the port, he began feuding with Commodore Hopkins, as Jones believed that Hopkins was hindering his advancement by talking down his campaign plans. As a result of this and other frustrations, Jones was assigned the smaller command of the newly constructed USS Ranger on June 14, 1777, the same day that the new Stars and Stripes flag was adopted.
After making the necessary preparations, Jones sailed for France on November 1, 1777, with orders to assist the American cause however possible. The American commissioners in France were Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee, and they listened to Jones's strategic recommendations. They promised him the command of Indien, a new vessel being constructed for America in Amsterdam. Britain, however, was able to divert L'Indien away from American hands by exerting pressure to ensure its sale to France instead (which had not yet allied with America). Jones was again left without a command, an unpleasant reminder of his stagnation in Boston from late 1776 until early 1777. It is thought that during this time Jones developed his close friendship with Benjamin Franklin, whom he greatly admired.
On February 6, 1778, France signed the Treaty of Alliance with America, formally recognizing the independence of the new American republic. Eight days later, Captain Jones's Ranger became the first American naval vessel to be formally saluted by the French, with a nine-gun salute fired from captain Lamotte-Piquet's flagship. Jones wrote of the event: "I accepted his offer all the more for after all it was a recognition of our independence and in the nation."
On April 10, 1778, Jones finally set sail from Brest, France, for the western coasts of Britain.
Jones had some early successes against British merchant shipping in the Irish Sea, then he persuaded his crew on April 17, 1778, to participate in an assault on Whitehaven, the town where his maritime career had begun. Jones later wrote about the poor command qualities of his senior officers (having tactfully avoided such matters in his official report): "'Their object,' they said, 'was gain not honor.' They were poor: instead of encouraging the morale of the crew, they excited them to disobedience; they persuaded them that they had the right to judge whether a measure that was proposed to them was good or bad." As it happened, contrary winds forced them to abandon the attempt and drove Ranger towards Ireland, causing more trouble for British shipping on the way.
On April 20, 1778, Jones learned from captured sailors that the Royal Navy sloop of war HMS Drake was anchored off Carrickfergus, Ireland. According to the diary of Ranger's surgeon Jones's first intention was to attack the vessel in broad daylight, but his sailors were "unwilling to undertake it" (another incident omitted from the official report). Therefore, the attack took place just after midnight, but the mate responsible for dropping the anchor to halt Ranger right alongside Drake misjudged the timing in the dark (Jones claimed in his memoirs that the man was drunk), so Jones had to cut his anchor cable and run.
The wind shifted, and Ranger recrossed the Irish Sea to make another attempt at raiding Whitehaven. Jones led the assault with two boats of fifteen men just after midnight on April 23, 1778, hoping to set fire to and sink all Whitehaven's ships anchored in harbor, which numbered between 200 and 400 wooden vessels and consisted of a full merchant fleet and many coal transporters. They also hoped to terrorize the townspeople by lighting further fires. As it happened, the journey to shore was slowed by the still-shifting wind, as well as a strong ebb tide. They successfully spiked the town's big defensive guns to prevent them being fired, but lighting fires proved difficult, as the lanterns in both boats had run out of fuel. To remedy this, some of the party were sent to raid a public house on the quayside, but the temptation to stop for a quick drink led to a further delay. Dawn was breaking by the time they returned and began the arson attacks, so efforts were concentrated on the coal ship Thompson in the hope that the flames would spread to adjacent vessels, all grounded by the low tide. However, in the twilight, one of the crew slipped away and alerted residents on a harbourside street. A fire alert was sounded, and large numbers of people came running to the quay, forcing the Americans to retreat, and extinguishing the flames with the town's two fire-engines. However, their hopes of sinking Jones's boats with cannon fire were dashed because of the prudent spiking.
Jones next crossed the Solway Firth from Whitehaven to Scotland, hoping to hold for ransom the Earl of Selkirk, who lived on St Mary's Isle near Kirkcudbright. The Earl, Jones reasoned, could be exchanged for American sailors impressed into the Royal Navy. The Earl was discovered to be absent from his estate, so his wife entertained the officers and conducted negotiations. Canadian historian Peter C. Newman gives credit to the governess for protecting the young heir and to the butler for filling a sack half with coal, and topping it up with the family silver, in order to fob off the Americans. Jones claimed that he intended to return directly to his ship and continue seeking prizes elsewhere, but his crew wished to "pillage, burn, and plunder all they could". Ultimately, Jones allowed the crew to seize a silver plate set adorned with the family's emblem to placate their desires, but nothing else. Jones bought the plate himself when it was later sold off in France, and returned it to the Earl of Selkirk after the war.
The attacks on St. Mary's Isle and Whitehaven resulted in no prizes or profits which would be shared with the crew under normal circumstances, although their effect was significant on British morale and allocation of defense resources. Throughout the mission, the crew acted as if they were aboard a privateer, not a warship, led by Lieutenant Thomas Simpson, Jones's second-in-command.
Nevertheless, Jones now led Ranger back across the Irish Sea, hoping to make another attempt at the Drake, still anchored off Carrickfergus. This time, late in the afternoon of April 24, 1778, the ships, roughly equal in firepower, engaged in combat. Earlier in the day, the Americans had captured the crew of a reconnaissance boat, and learned that Drake had taken on dozens of soldiers, with the intention of grappling and boarding Ranger, so Jones made sure that did not happen, capturing Drake after an hour-long gun battle which cost the British captain his life. Lieutenant Simpson was given command of Drake for the return journey to Brest. The ships separated during the return journey as Ranger chased another prize, leading to a conflict between Simpson and Jones. Both ships arrived at port safely, but Jones filed for a court-martial of Simpson, keeping him detained on the ship.
Partly through the influence of John Adams, who was still serving as a commissioner in France, Simpson was released from Jones's accusation. Adams implies in his memoirs that the overwhelming majority of the evidence supported Simpson's claims. Adams seemed to believe Jones was hoping to monopolize the mission's glory, especially by detaining Simpson on board while he celebrated the capture with numerous important European dignitaries.
Even with the wealth of perspectives, including the commander's, it is difficult if not impossible to tell exactly what occurred. It is clear, however, that the crew felt alienated by their commander, who might well have been motivated by his pride. Jones believed his intentions were honorable, and his actions were strategically essential to the Revolution. Regardless of any controversy surrounding the mission, Ranger's capture of Drake was one of the Continental Navy's few significant military victories during the Revolution, and was of immense symbolic importance, demonstrating as it did that the Royal Navy was far from invincible. By overcoming such odds, Ranger's victory became an important symbol of the American spirit and served as an inspiration for the permanent establishment of the United States Navy after the revolution.
In 1779, Captain Jones took command of the 42-gun USS Bonhomme Richard (or as he preferred it, Bon Homme Richard), a merchant ship rebuilt and given to America by the French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. On August 14, as a vast French and Spanish invasion fleet approached England, he provided a diversion by heading for Ireland at the head of a five ship squadron including the 36-gun USS Alliance, 32-gun USS Pallas, 12-gun USS Vengeance, and Le Cerf, also accompanied by two privateers, HMS Monsieur and Granville. When the squadron was only a few days out of Groix, Monsieur separated due to a disagreement between her captain and Jones. Several Royal Navy warships were sent towards Ireland in pursuit of Jones, but on this occasion, he continued right around the north of Scotland into the North Sea, creating near-panic all along Britain's east coast as far south as the Humber estuary. Jones's main problems, as on his previous voyage, resulted from insubordination, particularly by Pierre Landais, captain of Alliance. On September 23, 1779, the squadron met a large merchant convoy off the coast of Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire. The 50-gun British frigate HMS Serapis and the 22-gun hired ship Countess of Scarborough placed themselves between the convoy and Jones's squadron, allowing the merchants to escape.
Shortly after 7 p.m. the Battle of Flamborough Head began. Serapis engaged Bonhomme Richard, and soon afterwards, Alliance fired, from a considerable distance, at Countess. Quickly recognizing that he could not win a battle of big guns, and with the wind dying, Jones made every effort to lock Richard and Serapis together (his famous, albeit possibly apocryphal, quotation "I have not yet begun to fight!" was uttered in reply to a demand to surrender in this phase of the battle), finally succeeding after about an hour, following which his deck guns and his Marine marksmen in the rigging began clearing the British decks. Alliance sailed past and fired a broadside, doing at least as much damage to Richard as to Serapis. Meanwhile, Countess of Scarborough had enticed Pallas downwind of the main battle, beginning a separate engagement. When Alliance approached this contest, about an hour after it had begun, the badly damaged Countess surrendered.
With Bonhomme Richard burning and sinking, it seems that her ensign was shot away; when one of the officers, apparently believing his captain to be dead, shouted a surrender, the British commander asked, seriously this time, if they had struck their colours. Jones later remembered saying something like "I am determined to make you strike," but the words allegedly heard by crew-members and reported in newspapers a few days later were more like: "I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike." An attempt by the British to board Bonhomme Richard was thwarted, and a grenade caused the explosion of a large quantity of gunpowder on Serapis's lower gun-deck.
Alliance then returned to the main battle, firing two broadsides. Again, these did at least as much damage to Richard as to Serapis, but the tactic worked to the extent that, unable to move, and with Alliance keeping well out of the line of his own great guns, Captain Pearson of Serapis accepted that prolonging the battle could achieve nothing, so he surrendered. Most of Bonhomme Richard's crew immediately transferred to other vessels, and after a day and a half of frantic repair efforts, it was decided that the ship could not be saved, so it was allowed to sink, and Jones took command of Serapis for the trip to neutral (but American-sympathizing) Holland.
In the following year, the King of France Louis XVI, honored him with the title "Chevalier". Jones accepted the honor, and desired the title to be used thereafter: when the Continental Congress in 1787 resolved that a medal of gold be struck in commemoration of his "valor and brilliant services" it was to be presented to "Chevalier John Paul Jones". He also received from Louis XVI a decoration of "l'Institution du Mérite Militaire" and a sword. By contrast, in Britain at this time, he was usually denigrated as a pirate.
In June 1782, Jones was appointed to command the 74-gun USS America, but his command fell through when Congress decided to give America to the French as replacement for the wrecked Le Magnifique. As a result, he was given assignment in Europe in 1783 to collect prize money due his former hands. At length, this too expired and Jones was left without prospects for active employment, leading him on April 23, 1787 to enter into the service of the Empress Catherine II of Russia, who placed great confidence in Jones, saying: "He will get to Constantinople." He was granted name as a French subject Павел де Жонес (Pavel de Zhones, Paul de Jones).
Jones avowed his intention, however, to preserve the condition of an American citizen and officer. As a rear admiral aboard the 24-gun flagship Vladimir, he took part in the naval campaign in the Dnieper-Bug Liman (an arm of the Black Sea, into which flow the Southern Bug and Dnieper rivers) against the Turks, in concert with the Dnieper Flotilla commanded by Prince Charles of Nassau-Siegen. Jones (and Nassau-Siegen) repulsed the Ottoman forces from the area, but the jealous intrigues of Nassau-Siegen (and perhaps Jones's own inaptitude for Imperial politics) turned the Russian commander Prince Grigory Potëmkin against Jones and he was recalled to St. Petersburg for the pretended purpose of being transferred to a command in the North Sea. Another factor may have been the resentment of several ex-British naval officers also in Russian employment, who regarded Jones as a renegade and refused to speak to him. Whatever motivated the Prince, once recalled he was compelled to remain in idleness, while rival officers plotted against him and even maliciously assailed his private character through accusations of sexual misconduct. In April 1789 Jones was arrested and accused of raping a 12-year-old girl named Katerina Goltzwart. But the Count de Segur, the French representative at the Russian court (and also Jones' last friend in the capital), conducted his own personal investigation into the matter and was able to convince Potëmkin that the girl had not been raped and that Jones had been accused by Prince de Nassau-Siegen for his own purposes; Jones, however, admitted to prosecutors that he had "often frolicked" with the girl "for a small cash payment," only denying that he had deprived her of her virginity. Even so, in that period he was able to author his Narrative of the Campaign of the Liman.
On June 8, 1788, Jones was awarded the Order of St. Anne, but he left the following month, an embittered man.
In 1789 Jones arrived in Warsaw, Poland, where he befriended another veteran of the American Revolutionary War, Tadeusz Kościuszko. Kościuszko advised him to leave the service of the autocratic Russia, and serve another power, suggesting Sweden. Despite Kościuszko's backing, the Swedes, while somewhat interested, in the end decided not to recruit Jones.
In May 1790 Jones arrived in Paris. He still possessed his position as Russian rear admiral with a corresponding pension, which allowed him to remain in retirement until his death two years later, although he made a number of attempts to re-enter the service in the Russian navy. At this time his memoirs have been published in Edinburgh. Inspired by them, James Fenimore Cooper and Alexandre Dumas later wrote their own adventure novels. John Paul Jones also appeared as a cameo in Herman Melville's book "Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile".
In June 1792, Jones was appointed U.S. Consul to treat with the Dey of Algiers for the release of American captives. Before Jones was able to fulfill his appointment, however, he was found dead (aged 45) lying face-down on his bed in his third-floor Paris apartment, No. 19 Rue de Tournon, on July 18, 1792. The cause of death was interstitial nephritis. A small procession of servants, friends and loyal family walked his body the four miles (6.4 km) for burial. He was buried in Paris at the Saint Louis Cemetery, which belonged to the French royal family. Four years later, France's revolutionary government sold the property and the cemetery was forgotten. The area was later used as a garden, a place to dispose of dead animals and where gamblers bet on animal fights.
In 1905, Jones's remains were identified by U.S. Ambassador to France Gen. Horace Porter, who had searched for six years to track down the body using faulty copies of Jones's burial record. Thanks to the kind donation of a French admirer, Pierrot Francois Simmoneau, who had donated over 460 francs, Jones's body was preserved in alcohol and interred in a lead coffin "in the event that should the United States decide to claim his remains, they might more easily be identified." Porter knew what to look for in his search. With the aid of an old map of Paris, Porter's team, which included anthropologist Louis Capitan, identified the site of the former St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants. Sounding probes were used to search for lead coffins and five coffins were ultimately exhumed. The third, unearthed on April 7, 1905, was later identified by a meticulous post-mortem examination by Doctors Capitan and Georges Papillault as being that of Jones. The autopsy confirmed the original listing of cause of death. The face was later compared to a bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon.
Jones's body was ceremonially removed from interment in a Parisian charnel house and brought to the United States aboard the USS Brooklyn (CA-3), escorted by three other cruisers. On approaching the American coastline, seven U.S. Navy battleships joined the procession escorting Jones's body back to America. On April 24, 1906, Jones's coffin was installed in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, following a ceremony in Dahlgren Hall, presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt who gave a lengthy tributary speech. On January 26, 1913, the Captain's remains were finally re-interred in a magnificent bronze and marble sarcophagus at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis.
Jones was given an honorary pardon in 1999 by the Port of Whitehaven for his raid on the town in the presence of Lt Steve Lyons representing the US Naval Attache to the UK and His Excellency Yuri Fokine the Russian Ambassador to the UK. The US Navy were also awarded the Freedom of the Port of Whitehaven, the only time the honour has been granted in its 400-year history.
The Pardon and Freedom were arranged by Gerard Richardson MBE as part of the launch of the series of Maritime Festival. Richardson's of Whitehaven is now the honorary Consulate to the US Navy for the Town and Port of Whitehaven. The Consul is Rear Admiral (retired) US Navy, Steve Morgan and the Deputy Consul is Rob Romano.The 1824 novel The Pilot by James Fenimore Cooper contains fictionalized accounts of Jones's maritime activities. Alexandre Dumas's Captain Paul, a follow-up novel to The Pilot, was published in 1846.
In Herman Melville's Israel Potter (1855), the main character met John Paul Jones, who is negotiating with Benjamin Franklin. Later on Israel joins him in several of Jones' attacks and sea battles.
In 1923, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote a screenplay about John Paul Jones and sent it to Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, who politely rejected it. In 1983, the TV show Voyagers! used that fact as part of an alternate history where Roosevelt has become a successful movie director.
John Paul (Jones) appears as a largely true-to-history character in the Revolutionary-era novel Richard Carvel by American author Winston Churchill, (not the British Prime Minister of the same name), published in 1899.
Jones was portrayed by actor Robert Stack in the 1959 film John Paul Jones, directed by John Farrow.
Nicholas Nicastro wrote two historical novels about Jones and his times, The Eighteenth Captain (1999) and Between Two Fires (2002), published by McBooks Press.
Charles In Charge character Walter Powell was a former Navy man and belonged to the fictional John Paul Jones Society.
The John Paul Jones Junior High School in Philadelphia was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
The story of Jones's attack on Whitehaven Harbour features in Dan Chapman's 2012 novel Looking for Lucy.
In David Weber's alternate history story "The Captain from Kirkbean", published in Alternate Generals volume one (1998), when John Paul was twelve his father had been able to secure for him a position as a Midshipman on a Royal Navy ship, leading to an illustrious naval career culminating with his becoming Captain Sir John Paul, using all his abilities in fighting for King George III of Britain and against the American rebels.
Country singer Johnny Horton included a song about John Paul Jones on his album Johnny Horton Makes History.
Jones appeared in the cartoon Liberty's Kids, voiced by Liam Neeson.