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Notable Naval Heroes of Fredericksburg

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“Historic Fredericksburg Foundation Journal”,  2015 Edition


“ Notable Naval Heroes of Fredericksburg” 

Author’s Note:  The full article is about four men of the 18th and 19th Century Fredericksburg area who went on to careers and fame in the U.S. Navy.  This excerpt is about John Paul Jones.  The other three were Neil Howison (a naval Lieutenant who explored the Oregon coast), William Lewis Herndon (an explorer and naval Captain best known as commander of the S.S. Central America), and Matthew Fontaine Maury (the U.S. Navy’s premier navigation guru in the 19th Century).                                                      


The first of the stories begins before the Navy was formed.  Of the four men, he is the most famous and remembered:  John Paul Jones.    Jones was not born here.  We cannot claim that.  His story is one of associations and a name change.

After the settlement of Fredericksburg was made official in 1728, lots were laid out and some were sold, but there was not a land or population boom.  Had it not been for the emigration of a merchant class of Scotsmen—establishing a solid commercial base here—the early town might have failed altogether.

One of those solid, Scottish citizens was a tailor, William Paul—the older brother of John—who set up a shop right downtown at the corner of Caroline and Prussia Streets,  modern Lafayette Boulevard, near the main City Docks and boat landing.  He built up his business while the town grew.

[Though the original building is long gone, in legend the structure there is still errantly called the “John Paul Jones” house.]

John Paul had started his seafaring life aboard a variety of merchant ships, the first of which in 1761 had the Virginia provincial port of Fredericksburg as its destination.  Young John stayed with his brother for a time and had been here several more times when, in 1768, his career was advanced with the captain and head mate died suddenly of yellow fever on board the John, a brig that John Paul got safely back to port.  He was rewarded by the ship’s owners and continued to sail to East Coast of North America, Fredericksburg, and the West Indies.  Had nothing else happened, Fredericksburg could already claim him.

However, in the sunny islands of the Caribbean, John Paul and his reputation ran into trouble largely caused by his quick temper.

On Tobago, while in command of the Betsy, he had a confrontation with the crew, grown mutinous over conditions on the voyage.  John Paul confronted the man he later referred to as “The Ringleader” and, after a fight, impaled the man on a sword.  Forthrightly, he turned to the local law enforcement officials but was facing what today would be called a rigged jury.  He chose to flee.  To hide from Royal authorities, he adopted an alias by adding “Jones” to his name, creating the identity by which he is known to history:  John Paul Jones.

He returned to Fredericksburg in 1774.  But, even though his brother had died and that estate needed to be settled, the task was arduous because John Paul was an outsider.  However, he was welcomed by the local Masons, particularly the Grand Master, Dr. John Read—a fellow Scotsman.  Jones spent much time studying at Read’s plantation, “The Grove” and talking with his Masonic colleagues.  He also met and was befriended by Judge Francis Taliferro Brooke and his family.

By the next year, word arrived of British marines absconding with gunpowder from the armory in Williamsburg.  The throes of Colonial rebellion rose and took Jones with them.  The Masons were particularly engaged in this revolutionary fervor, led by a young, local Fredericksburg physician, Hugh Mercer.  Jones moved to enlist in this young movement.  So, he departed Fredericksburg—for the last time—and joined what became the Continental Navy.

His story continues and, with one exception, his connection ends.  As the Revolutionary naval war grew, Jones found himself in France and in command of a re-commisioned vessel he renamed Le Bonhomme Richard.  Enlisting to serve as the Ship’s Surgeon on that famous vessel was Judge Brooks’ brother, Dr. Lawrence Brooke, the last of Jones’ connections here.  Jones and Brooks went on to fame together.


Scott Walker, Vice-President

The Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc.

1200 Caroline Street

Fredericksburg, VA  22401


Excerpt from the “HFFI Journal”,

March,  2015

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