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FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

In this edition, from the December 1975 issue of American Shipper, FreightWaves shares the exciting story of a man regarded as a naval hero in the United States but as a pirate in the United Kingdom. This is the first part of two recounting the life of John Paul Jones.

Mr. Jones understood women and merchant seapower

A leader, a lover and at times a loser might be the quickest way to describe John Paul Jones. As Rear Admiral Samuel Elison Morison writes in his preface to his biography of Jones, “No character in naval history, with the exception of Lord Nelson, has been the subject of as much romance and controversy as has John Paul Jones.”

The distinguished historian adds, “It is much easier to write a novel about Paul Jones than to write a biography.”

As the Bicentennial Year looms ahead, it is in order to consider the men of the sea who have contributed so much to the United States and the role they played in the founding of our country. Leading the list of the great men of the sea has to be none other than John Paul Jones.

How many Americans realize that like many other officers of the Navy, Jones was a merchant skipper before he was commissioned in the young Navy? How many of us know that the merchant marine is the “Mother of Navies”? It was the bravery, courage and seamanship of men like Jones who added lustre to the cause of freedom.


Born in Scotland, Jones left his family and farm and turned his eyes and his feet seaward. The high roads and low roads of Bobbie Burns brought him to the brig “Friendship,” Captain Robert Renson commanding. He was just 13 years of age when he asked to ship aboard “Friendship.”

Then for the next four years, Jones made the brig his classroom and the Master was his tutor as the ship made round trips from Scotland to Barbados and to Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was the beginning of a career that carried Jones to the slave trade, a noted place in the history of the American Revolutionary War, into the arms of any number of beautiful women, intrigue at the Court of Catherine of Russia, a charge of rape and a final resting place in the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

West Indies

His first position of command aboard ship came when he signed on the “King George,” a blackbirder out of Whitehaven. Next vessel was the “Two Friends” of Kingston, Jamaica and he was chief mate. It was a 30 ton brig about 50 feet long and it carried six officers and men along with 77 Africans. Outraged at what he called an “abominable trade,” Jones obtained his discharge and was lucky enough to get passage home to Scotland from Kingston. Both Master and Mate died enroute to the “Bonnie Isle” and Jones assumed command of the 60 ton brig “John” home-berthed in Liverpool.

The Captain John Paul Jones (Photo: Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)

He was appointed Master of “John” and made trips to the West Indies. Horatio Nelson, like Jones, found that a voyage to the West Indies was a far better school of seamanship than the Royal Navy. It was more than a nautical school for John. He became well-known in Bridgetown, Barbados “where the living was easy” and feminine companionship was seldom lacking.

But after his early days of seeking “fun” ashore, Jones made a point of seeking the company of ladies and gentlemen and striving to improve his speech, writing and appearance. He soon became known as a “dandy skipper” elegant in dress and manner.

In his speech, the Scottish burr was gone and in his writing, his style was better than that of his fellow officers and his letters to ladies were poetic and charming.

Charmed Abigail Adams

In his appearance, Jones was outstanding. Abigail Adams wrote … “I expected to see a rough, stout, warlike Roman — instead of that I should sooner think of wrapping him up in cotton wool, and putting him in my pocket, than sending him to contend with cannon balls. He is small of stature, well proportioned, soft in his speech, easy in his address, polite in his manners, vastly civil, understands all the etiquette of a lady’s toilette as perfectly as he does the mast, sails and rigging of his ship. Under all this appearance of softness he is bold, enterprising, ambitious and active.”

He was far from soft. As a shipmaster, he was also a captain of commerce engaged in selling his cargo for the top price. Then, buying a return cargo that would be profitable to owner and skipper alike.

Charged with murder

At Tobago, his men wanted a draw or an advance payment of wages. Jones wanted to save all cash on hand for the purchase of the return cargo. The seamen, headed by a ringleader, attempted to go ashore without leave. Jones became embroiled in a battle with the leader and to ward off a blow from a bludgeon, ran the man through with his sword.

On another occasion, he had a ship’s carpenter lashed with a cat-o-nine tails. The carpenter lodged a complaint at Tobago in May 1770. The judge dismissed the complaint after examining the carpenter.

But, that was not the end of the affair. Mungo Maxwell, the ship’s carpenter, died on a voyage home aboard the “Barcelona Packet.” Maxwell’s father brought the charge of murder against Jones. Evidence pointed to the fact that Maxwell died at sea of fever. Jones was cleared of the murder charge. He wasn’t a cotton wrapping — he was a man who demanded discipline of his men.

Lost to Patrick Henry

Jones had other difficulties. The man whose inspiring words “I have not yet begun to fight” lost an affair of the heart to another American made famous by his words of “Give me Liberty or give me Death.”

John Paul Jones and Patrick Henry were both attracted to a Virginia beauty, Dorothy Dandridge. But the loquacious Patrick, then Governor of Virginia and a widower with six children, added, “Give me Dorothy, too!” The talkative Governor Henry did more than just talk because Dorothy bore nine children by him bringing Patrick Henry’s grand total to fifteen children! (Jones lost this game 15-0!)

While both of these gentlemen had the same idea about Dorothy, Jones differed later with Patrick Henry in the affairs of government. Henry was an opponent of central power citing that “even the Articles of Confederation conferred too much authority on central power.” Jones took the opposite tack stating, “no government could hope to be respected at home or abroad that was not firmly united or capable of presenting an undivided and unbroken front in any emergency.” How appropriate are those words in view of the recent action by President Ford in the S.S. Mayaguez incident.

Jones soon lost any uneasiness over the delightful Dorothy. Other ladies claimed his attention. One stands out particularly, in her missive to the romantic skipper. Comtesse de Nicolson was smitten and expressed herself in many letters to Jones. One paragraph of a letter shows her generosity and her love — “I have never dared to speak to you of this, but I have heard that you couldn’t find the money to pay your people. In the name of all the love which with I am consumed, command me if I can be useful. I have diamonds and effects of various kinds; I could easily find a sum; command your Mistress, it would make her happy. Twenty times in your arms I wished to speak to you of this, but I feared to displease you.”

‘Let no boat leave.’

That Jones had definite ideas about pursuing the fair sex is related in a story told about him in his favorite French port of Lorient. James Moylan did a good bit of ship’s business in that harbor. He was a rude, rough man, a great deal older than his 17-year-old bride. Like 40 years older.

The amorous skipper had eyes for the young wife and she was most receptive. How to get the husband out of the way called for strategy at its finest. Jones did not lack in the strategy department. He knew Moylan had business with the Purser and would visit the ship.

“After Mr. Moylan arrives,” said Jones as he departed for the shore, “let no boat leave the ship until I return.”

About eight o’clock in the evening, the visitor became uneasy but the officer of the deck adhered to the Captain’s order. “Sorry, sir, but no boat may leave the ship.” The officers plied the merchant with wine and finally put him to bed on board, “drunk as a beast.” Jones must have had a most enjoyable and undisturbed evening ashore with the pretty, young Madame Moylan.

It was on December 7,1775, that John Paul Jones was commissioned as First Lieutenant in the Continental Navy. It was through Joseph Hewes of North Carolina, a member of the Marine Committee, that Jones received his commission. The former merchant skipper entered a naval fleet that was a collection of merchant ships but it represented the only Navy we had!

The thrifty Yankee hand could be seen in Navy regs for the embryo naval force. John Adams stipulated that “each ship be furnished with fishing tackle” and the commanding officers should drop the hook “where fish were to be had.” It added to the daily fare of the crew. Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island, a veteran merchant captain, was the Commander in Chief of the new Navy.

Jones was placed in temporary command of the “Alfred” and waiting for the arrival of her skipper. Captain Dudley Saltonstall put the crew to work daily by exercising the guns. “Alfred’s” guns were cast iron and threw nine pound cannon balls. The exercise of guns stood Jones in good stead in upcoming battles with the enemy since the ships that he commanded were never noted for their speed but Jones with his daring and courage made his vessels a match against the fleet British ships. He fought the British but at times fought with his brother officers. After the HMS Glasgow fray, Jones wrote to his patron, Joseph Hewes, a letter highly critical of Captain Saltonstall that ended with the observation — “whoever thinks himself hearty in the service is widely mistaken when he adopts such a line of conduct (rude, ungentle treatment by a superior officer) in order to prove it — for to be well obeyed it is necessary to be esteemed.”

Click here to read the rest of the December 1975 issue.

Come back to read the rest of John Paul Jones’ story.

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