American Revolution: Commodore John Paul Jones

Commodore John Paul Jones. Hulton Archive / Stringer/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

Scottish by birth, Commodore John Paul Jones became the new United States' first naval hero during the American Revolution (1775-1783). Beginning his career as a merchant sailor and, later, captain, he was forced to flee to the North American colonies after killing a member of his crew in self defense. In 1775, shortly after the war began, Jones was able to secure a commission as lieutenant in the fledgling Continental Navy. Taking part in its early campaigns, he excelled as a commerce raider when given independent commands.

Given command of the sloop-of-war Ranger (18 guns) in 1777, Jones received the first foreign salute of the American flag and became the first Continental Navy officer to capture a British warship. In 1779, he repeated the feat when a squadron under his command captured HMS Serapis (44) and HMS Countess of Scarborough (22) at the Battle of Flamborough Head. With the end of the conflict, Jones later served as a rear admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy.

Fast Facts: John Paul Jones

  • Rank: Captain (US), Rear Admiral (Russia)
  • Service: Continental Navy, Imperial Russian Navy
  • Birth Name: John Paul
  • Born: July 6, 1747 at Kirkcudbright, Scotland
  • Died: July 18, 1792, Paris, France
  • Parents: John Paul, Sr. and Jean (McDuff) Paul
  • Conflicts: American Revolution
  • Known For: Battle of Flamborough Head (1777)

Early Life

Born John Paul on July 6, 1747, at Kirkcudbright, Scotland, John Paul Jones was the son of a gardener. Going to sea at age 13, he first served aboard the merchant ship Friendship which operated out of Whitehaven. Progressing through the merchant ranks, he sailed on both trading vessels and those carrying enslaved people. A skilled sailor, he was made first mate of a ship carrying enslaved people, Two Friends, in 1766. Though the trade of enslaved people was lucrative, Jones became disgusted with it and departed the vessel two years later. In 1768, while sailing as a mate aboard the brig John, Jones suddenly ascended to command after yellow fever killed the captain.

Safely bringing the vessel back to port, the ship's owners made him the permanent captain. In this role, Jones made several profitable voyages to the West Indies. Two years after taking command, Jones was forced to severely flog a disobedient sailor. His reputation suffered when the sailor died a few weeks later. Leaving John, Jones became captain of the London-based Betsey. While lying off Tobago in December 1773, trouble began with his crew and he was forced to kill one of them in self-defense. In the wake of this incident, he was advised to flee until an admiralty commission could be formed to hear his case.

North America

Traveling north to Fredericksburg, VA, Jones hoped to obtain aid from his brother who had settled in the area. Finding that his brother had died, he took over his affairs and estate. It was during this period that he added "Jones" to his name, possibly in an effort to distance himself from his past. Sources are unclear regarding his activities in Virginia, however it is known that he traveled to Philadelphia in the summer of 1775, to offer his services to the new Continental Navy after the start of the American Revolution. Endorsed by Richard Henry Lee, Jones was commissioned as the first lieutenant of the frigate Alfred (30)

Continental Navy

Fitting out in Philadelphia, Alfred was commanded by Commodore Esek Hopkins. On December 3, 1775, Jones became the first to hoist the US flag over an American warship. The following February, Alfred served as Hopkins' flagship during the expedition against New Providence in the Bahamas. Landing marines on March 2, 1776, Hopkins' force succeeded in capturing weapons and supplies which were badly needed by General George Washington's army at Boston. Returning to New London, Jones was given command of the sloop Providence (12), with the temporary rank of captain, on May 10, 1776.

While aboard Providence, Jones displayed his skill as a commerce raider capturing sixteen British ships during one six-week cruise and received his permanent promotion to captain. Arriving at Narragansett Bay on October 8, Hopkins appointed Jones to command Alfred. Through the fall, Jones cruised off Nova Scotia capturing several additional British vessels and securing winter uniforms and coal for the army. Putting into Boston on December 15, he began a major refit on the vessel. While in port, Jones, a poor politician, began feuding with Hopkins.

As result, Jones was next assigned to command the new 18-gun sloop-of-war Ranger rather than one of the new frigates being built for the Continental Navy. Departing Portsmouth, NH on November 1, 1777, Jones was ordered to proceed to France to assist the American cause in any way possible. Arriving at Nantes on December 2, Jones met with Benjamin Franklin and informed the American commissioners of the victory at the Battle of Saratoga. On February 14, 1778, while in Quiberon Bay, Ranger received the first recognition of the American flag by a foreign government when it was saluted by the French fleet.

Cruise of Ranger

Sailing from Brest on April 11, Jones sought to bring the war home to the British people with the goal of forcing the Royal Navy to withdraw forces from American waters. Boldly sailing into the Irish Sea, he landed his men at Whitehaven on April 22 and spiked the guns in the town's fort as well as burned shipping in the harbor. Crossing Solway Firth, he landed at St. Mary's Isle to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk whom he believed could be exchanged for American prisoners of war. Coming ashore, he found that the Earl was away. To placate the desires of his crew, he seized the family's set of silver plate.

Crossing the Irish Sea, Ranger encountered the sloop-of-war HMS Drake (20) on April 24. Attacking, Ranger captured the ship after an hour-long battle. Drake became the first British warship to be captured by the Continental Navy. Returning to Brest, Jones was greeted as a hero. Promised a new, larger ship, Jones soon encountered problems with the American commissioners as well as the French admiralty. After some struggle, he obtained a former East Indiaman which he converted into a warship. Mounting 42 guns, Jones named the ship Bonhomme Richard in tribute to Benjamin Franklin.

Battle of Flamborough Head

Sailing on August 14, 1779, Jones commanded a five-ship squadron. Proceeding northwest, Jones moved up the west coast of Ireland and turned to circle the British Isles. While the squadron captured several merchant ships, Jones experienced persistent problems with insubordination from his captains. On September 23, Jones encountered a large British convoy off Flamborough Head escorted by HMS Serapis (44) and HMS Countess of Scarborough (22). Jones maneuvered Bonhomme Richard to engage Serapis while his other ships intercepted Countess of Scarborough.

Though Bonhomme Richard was pounded by Serapis, Jones was able to close and lash the two ships together. In a prolonged and brutal fight, his men were able to overcome the British resistance and succeeded in capturing Serapis. It was during this fight that Jones reputedly replied to a British demand for surrender with "Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!" As his men were achieving their victory, his consorts captured Countess of Scarborough. Turning for Texel, Jones was forced to abandon the battered Bonhomme Richard on September 25.


Again hailed as a hero in France, Jones was awarded the rank of Chevalier by King Louis XVI. On June 26, 1781, Jones was appointed to command America (74) which was then under construction at Portsmouth. Returning to America, Jones threw himself into the project. Much to his disappointment, the Continental Congress elected to give the ship to France in September 1782, to replace Magnifique which had run aground entering Boston harbor. Completing the ship, Jones turned it over to its new French officers.

Foreign Service

With the end of the war, Jones, like many Continental Navy officers, was discharged. Left idle, and feeling that he was not given enough credit for his actions during the war, Jones willingly accepted an offer to serve in the navy of Catherine the Great. Arriving in Russia in 1788, he served in that year's campaign on the Black Sea under the name Pavel Dzhones. Though he fought well, he bickered with the other Russian officers and was soon politically outmaneuvered by them. Recalled to St. Petersburg, he was left without a command and soon departed for Paris.

Returning to Paris in May 1790, he lived there in retirement, though he did make attempts to re-enter Russian service. He died alone on July 18, 1792. Buried in St. Louis Cemetery, Jones' remains were returned to the United States in 1905. Carried aboard the armored cruiser USS Brooklyn, they were interred in an elaborate crypt within the United States Naval Academy Chapel at Annapolis, MD.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Commodore John Paul Jones." ThoughtCo, Oct. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, October 28). American Revolution: Commodore John Paul Jones. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Commodore John Paul Jones." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).