John Paul Jones

Portsmouth, New Hampshire is an old town by North American standards.  Settled in 1630, it played a notable role in the American Revolution.  Paul Revere rode here from Boston to warn the town that the British were coming – by sea – to bombard them.  With a great harbor and a ready source of lumber right upstream, Portsmouth was a natural place for a shipyard and an attractive target for the British.  The forts that protected Portsmouth Harbor were one reason it didn’t burn to the ground.

One notable resident of Portsmouth was John Paul Jones.  Jones was a Scottish-born sailor who had risen up the ranks in the British Navy before controversy over two deaths associated with Jones prompted him to get out of dodge and head for America.  Jones lived in the Philadelphia area and was soon earmarked for command of a ship in the Continental Navy.  Many raids on Ireland and the capture of a British warship at a time when victories were few and far between garnered him fame in America as a hero and in Britain as a pirate.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  By all accounts Jones was a brilliant tactician and sailor.  But killing one sailor by flogging and another with a sword make it clear he wasn’t a “hugger”.

Jones’ most famous battle was in 1779, while under command of the Bonhomme Richard.  While attempting to raid merchant ships, British warships engaged with the Bonhomme Richard and four other ships.  The 50-gun frigate Serapis was much bigger, so Jones locked onto the ship for close fighting and sniper action from marines in the rigging.  Sustaining heavy damage but refusing to surrender, this is where Jones supposedly said “I have not yet begun to fight!”  Whether true or not it made for a great war slogan and a larger than life character in Jones.

Jones arrived in Portsmouth on August 31, 1781 and lived there for about a year, boarding at a house that still stands at 43 Middle Street.  He had been appointed command of a new ship, appropriated named America, being built at Badger’s Island just across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth.  So boarding at the Purcell house was a convenient place for Jones.

Jones was likely bitterly disappointed when Congress decided to give America to France as a gift for its role in winning the American Revolution, but he stayed on to oversee completion of the ship.  America was launched on November 5th, 1782 and sailed to France where it served for a brief three years before being scrapped.  It seems the Americans used green wood in construction.

John Paul Jones ended up joining the Russian Navy and served for some time against the Turks in the Black Sea.  He died at the young age of 45 in 1892.  Buried originally in Paris, his body was exhumed and he was re-buried at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  Jones was considered a father of the US Navy.  His battles on the Ranger are the stuff of movies.  Whether a pirate, privateer or Continental Navy hero, he certainly lived an interesting life.  For a year of that brief life he walked the same streets I just walked today.