John Paul Jones Visits Portsmouth

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He is arguably the most famous Portsmouth resident in history. Born John Paul in Kirkeudbright, Scotland in 1747, the future “Father of the American Navy” was a cabin boy in the British Merchant Navy by age 12. He served aboard a slave ship, a job he reportedly despised, before becoming captain of his own trading vessel. By his arrival in Portsmouth in 1777, having added a surname, John Paul Jones had already distinguished himself as a brilliant naval tactician in the dawning days of the American Revolution.

While preparing the sloop of war Ranger forbattle, legend says, Jones boarded at what is now the iconic yellow John Paul Jones House Museum downtown. Built in 1758, the house was owned by Sarah Purcell, the widowed mother of eight children. The sudden death of her husband the previous year forced Purcell to rent rooms to pay her creditors.

With a crew, including men from the Piscataqua region, Captain Jones waged what amounted to a one- ship war along the coast of Great Britain. Although his guerilla raids aboard Ranger in 1778 caused little damage, they had a chilling effect on the British public. After capturing HMS Dram, Jones sent Ranger home. With assistance from the French, he resumed his war against England aboard Bonhomie Richard. In a ferocious battle against HMS Serapis, Jones sealed his reputation as a naval hero. French King Louis XVI welcomed Jones to France in 1780 with the gift of a ceremonial sword and the honorary title of “chevalier.” It was during this period that Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpted a bust of Jones from life. Houdon’s French subjects included Voltaire, Rousseau and Napoleon, plus American revolutionaries Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. Jones ordered about twenty plaster copies of his likeness and shipped them on his return to the war-torn United States. The bronze replica at the Portsmouth Historical Society was made in the 1900s.

Appointed commander of the 74-gun America, Jones was back at the Purcell boarding house in 1781. But the following year Congress chose to give America to the French. Jones left the U.S. without fanfare. He served briefly as an admiral in the Russian Navy and died alone in a Paris hotel in 1792. He was buried in a sealed lead coffin at the city’s only Protestant cemetery.

During the 1800s, John Paul Jones became an American folk hero. His bold exploits were now legendary. Children read about him in school. Navy cadets pledged to follow his example. Then in 1905, Jones’ mummified body was discovered among the catacombs beneath a Paris street. Identified by comparison to the Houdon bust, his remains were transferred with great pomp to an ornate crypt below the US Naval Academy Chapel at Annapolis, MD.

By a twist of fate, the worldwide publicity surrounding Jones’ posthumous return to the United States helped save the Purcell House. Slated for demolition, the Georgian mansion was purchased in 1919 for $10,000 by the newly formed Portsmouth Historical Society. Opened in 1920, the restored historic house, collections and garden are open to the public.