This post was written by Eva Gratta, New-York Historical Society Graduate Archival Research Fellow
Recognized as the greatest hero of the Revolutionary Navy, John Paul Jones is remembered for his colorful life and tenacity in battle. Jones achieved his most celebrated victory as the commander of the American warship Bon Homme Richard, which defeated the British frigate HMS Serapis off the coast of Flamborough Head, east Yorkshire, in 1779.
As a Graduate Archival Research Fellow this semester, I helped to improve public access to the N-YHS’s Maritime History Collection. A conglomerate of several gifts and materials collected by staff members, this diverse collection contains prints, photographs, newspaper clippings, correspondence and ephemera relating to naval and civilian maritime history from the 19th through 20th centuries. This fellowship allowed me to learn about archival practice and as an art historian studying early American marine imagery it was a privilege to engage with the N-YHS’s extraordinary holdings. Although this collection contains many treasures, those relating to John Paul Jones are among the most remarkable.
Jones gained international celebrity in his own lifetime and there was a great demand for his likeness and images of his naval exploits. The Maritime History Collection contains a hand colored engraving after a painting by British artist Richard Paton that pictures the legendary battle between the Serapis and Bon Homme Richard. Though a British defeat, this engraving, which was printed within a year of the battle, demonstrates popular interest in the event on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Bon Homme Richard was a refitted merchant ship that was given to the American Navy by the French. In 1780, one year after the fateful battle, King Louis XVI of France awarded Jones the title “chevalier.”. A French engraving shows Jones in the midst of his heroic exploits, illustrating his popularity with French audiences.
Though much of the John Paul Jones material is held in the print room, artifacts relating to Jones can be found across the N-YHS’s rich collections. The N-YHS library holds the greatest relic of the engagement between the Serapis and Bon Homme Richard: the original logbook of the Serapis, which taken from the captured ship by Jones’ crew. This logbook came to New-York Historical in 1925 as part of the Naval History Society’s John S. Barnes Memorial Library.
The logbook descended in the family of Richard Dale, the first lieutenant of the Bon Homme Richard, and was subsequently sold to a private collector, S.L. Barlow. Barnes, a naval officer and collector, purchased the logbook at an auction of Barlow’s library in 1890. In a 1902 lecture at the U.S. Naval Institute Barnes described his collecting practices and particular interest in Jones, demonstrating the influence of individual collectors on the N-YHS’s remarkable holdings.
For more on Barnes, his lecture can be accessed on google books.
The Maritime History Collection also holds what is likely the most macabre Jones relic: a lock of hair taken from Jones’ corpse upon its exhumation in 1905. The lock of hair is accompanied by an engraving and a letter, which reads:
I hereby certify that this lock of hair was taken from the head of John Paul Jones by my father, the late Augustus Biesel (of the American Embassy) at the time of the discovery of the remains. My father’s efforts did much in the recovery of these remains as was certified by General Horace Porter, at that time American ambassador in France- Paris, August 31, 1916, Howard W. Biesel.
In 1790 Jones retired to France where he died two years later. Despite this unceremonious end Jones was recognized as a national hero in the 19th century and his fame only grew with the publication of his writings and several biographies. In 1899, Horace Porter, the American ambassador to France, began to search for Jones’ remains with the intent to reinter them in the United States. In 1905 Jones’ body was located and transported to the US. Jones’ remains were honored in a ceremony attended by President Roosevelt in 1906 and, in 1913, Jones was buried in the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel.