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UPDATE: Read even more on the Stafford flag hoax

Did the historic Bonhomme
flag really survive?

Mrs Stafford Sometimes a post card can throw off your whole day. Nearly a century old, this one arrived by email from a reader aware of Portsmouth's claim to creating the famous Ranger flag. The card shows the back of a lady in a bonnet with a draped American flag and the caption reads: "Mrs. H. Stafford and Paul Jones Flag, Oak Bluffs, Mass."

Right off we wanted to know: (1) Who is Mrs. Stafford?; (2) Why does she have John Paul Jones' flag?; (3) What is she doing in Martha's Vineyard?; and (4) Why the heck does she have her back to the camera?

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Portsmouth connection

The legend of the "Portsmouth quilting bee", according to scholars, stems from the fertile imagination of John Paul Jones biographer Augustus C. Buell. Buell was also influential in promoting the myth of Jones as "Founder of the American Navy" in his 1900 study. It is unlikely that women of Portsmouth sewed the famous flag from their petticoats. It is a fact, however, that Jones sailed the frigate Ranger from Portsmouth, NH in 1777 with the flag that would become the first ever recognized by a foreign nation.

After the capture of the Drake by the Ranger, the ship and many crew members returned to Portsmouth and Jones stayed in France where, with Ben Franklin's help, he used French funds to buy another warship. He called this one Bonhomme. Did the Ranger flag make its way onto the Bonhomme? We can only speculate. If it did, then almost all popular images of Jones and his flag are inaccurate, because the Bonhomme flag or "Serapis" flag looked like this:

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The Serapis Flag

flag It's a surprising version of the American flag with its blue stripes and eight-pointed stars. This, we know, is the flag Jones was flying from the ship Serapis when he arrived in the Dutch port of Texel in 1779. His own ship, Bonhomme Richard, sank following the bloody battle with the British ship Serapis. Jones had transferred his crew and prisoners to the Serapis. In some accounts, Bonhomme is said to have sunk with its colors flying. It is also said to have had its colors blown away by canon fire.

The accuracy of the "Serapis flag" configuration comes from Dutch records. When the tattered ship arrived at the Dutch island of Texel after the battle, the British ambassador asked that the pirate Jones be taken into custody since his ship bore the flag of an unrecognized foreign country. With no love lost for the British, the Dutch sent an artist to sketch the flag on the Serapis and enter it into their record books. When the authorities checked the next day, sure enough, the Serapis appeared to be from a newly recognized foreign power known as the United Stares of America.

Was this the Ranger flag? Unlikely. Did the Bonhomme flag survive, despite eye witness reports of its loss? Hmmmm. Was a backup flag made during Jones yearlong wait in France, or was it hastily prepared aboard the Serapis as it limped toward Holland? And how, once again, did it end up in the Stafford family relics in the early 20th century?

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The Stafford Flag

It didn't, experts tell us today, although for awhile even tmajor museums were fooled. Eighty years after the battle, the flag was produced by descendants of James Stafford who had reportedly been a midshipmen on John Paul Jones flagship during the Serapis battle, though he is not listed in the roster. According to the story, Stafford had saved the flag and it has been presented to him, and not to John Paul Jones, in 1784 by a committee of the US Congress.

A piece of the Stafford "Bonhomme flag" was exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. Another piece had earlier been cut off and given to President Abraham Lincoln. It reportedly ended up in the Smithsonian Institution where it was on display as the authentic article. A letter supporting the Stafford claim was disputed by scholars, and the flag was withdrawn from view in 1942. But a check with the Smithsonian says it was not displayed there at any time.

Even in the postcard it is easy to see this is not the "Serapis" flag. Why it is presented here in Martha's Vineyard - we still don't know. The librarian at the Oak Bluffs Library tells us that the town did not receive its name until 1907, so the post card is more recent than that date. And why is Mrs. Stafford turned with her back to the camera? Is it really her? We may not only have a fake flag here, but a fake owner as well.

The facts will surface; time will tell. Wasn't it Teddy Roosevelt who said that things stay the same, only history changes? Or was that Teddy Roosevelt, or maybe Teddy Kennedy? As readers send us new facts, we'll keep changing this article. Stay tuned.

Primary Source: The History of United States Flag from the Revolution to the Present, Including a Guide to its Use and Display, by Milo M. Quaife, Melvin J. Weig and Roy E. Appleman, Harper & Rowe, New York, 1961.

Article by J. Dennis Robinson
Research assistance by Marcia Jepp of the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
Thanks for this postcard to Dick Lightle
© 1999

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Behind the Stafford Flag Hoax
More info discovered in 1896 magazine

Finally we know why Mrs. Stafford's flag, the one reportedly salvaged from Paul Jones' Bonhomme Richard, ended up on Martha's Vineryard. The answer came to us in an 1896 magazine article written before the flag was discovered to be a hoax and before Jonesí body was exhumed from a Paris cemetery and transported to the USA.

"The Original Starry Flag of Paul Jones" is an effusive patriotic tribute to what was then considered a priceless relic of American history. In this era every school child knew the story of the battle between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis, but even historians were fuzzy on the facts.

Mrs. Stafford

In 1896 the flag was owned by Mrs. Samuel Bayard Stafford who, according to the article in Peterson's Magazine, had often allowed the flag displayed at public events, including the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial and the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. By the end of the 19th century, the report says, the 2 1/2 by 2 yard flag had been reduced nearly to half its size by scissors-wielding admirers "whose covetousness was greater than their veneration". The surviving Mrs. Stafford, then elderly, had been forced to encase the flag in glass to protect it from souvenir hunters. In 1896 the flag was available for private viewing in her home at Cottage City on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

The Peterson's article allows us to trace the reported ownership of the flag and to get a better handle on the nearly forgotten story -- whether hoax or simple error. Widow Stafford inherited the flag from her husband, who inherited it from his sister Sarah Smith Stafford. They were the children off Lieut. James Bayard Stafford who was reportedly given the flag in 1784, five years after the bloodiest sea battle in American Naval history off Flamborough Head in England. The flag was presented by the Secretary of State of Philadelphia along with a broad sword and musket captured from the Serapis. Stafford was given the flag because he had been aboard the Bonhomme Richard during the battle. According to Stafford family legend, the Bonhomme flag was shot from the masthead and fell into the sea, but a young Lieut. Stafford had jumped into the sea and retrieved Paul Jones' flag, receiving a wound that troubled him for the rest of his life.

This story of the salvaged flag, of course, is not related in any official account of the battle. So where did Lieut. Stafford and this unique 12-star flag come from?

Stafford Flag

Stafford reportedly found his way onto the Bonhomme when his ship, The Kitty, was captured by a British ship in English waters. The Kitty was captained by Philip Stafford, uncle to James Stafford who was also aboard. Jones, according to the story, then took the British ship as a prize and freed the crew of the Kitty who joined the Bonhomme crew just 10 days before the battle with the Serapis. After young Stafford saved the flag, the story goes, it was not raised on the Serapis, but transferred for reasons unknown to the Alliance, the troublesome American ship whose captain had fired on Jones during the battle. How the famous flag arrived back in Philadelphia is not explained.

Even more bizarre is the story of how the flag got on the Bonhomme in the first place. According to the owner in 1896, the flag was made in Philadelphia by two women under the direct supervision of George Washingon, "the principal idea of the design being taken from Washington's family escutcheon." The flag-makers are said to have given the ensign to Paul Jones himself who sailed it up and down the Delaware River to admiring crowds. This, the Stafford family claimed, was the first appearance of the first Stars and Stripes. The flag next shows up aboard the Bonhomme, where the French reportedly saluted it. All mention of the Ranger, which Jones sailed from Portsmouth, NH and which received the salute at Brest, France is absent from the report.

Two more interesting notes appear in the Peterson's article. In 1848, Lieut. Stafford's daughter appealed to Congress for compensation for her father;s service in the Revolutionary War. This is just a decade after Paul Jones' niece did the same, without success, to collect unpaid debts owed to him. Mrs. Stafford, however, after many attempts, was more successful. She received $8,000 in compensation. If the flag and its 1784 letter of authentication were a hoax, this small fortune might be seen as a motivating factor. Or did Miss Stafford really inherit a flag that she believed was authentic? According to the 1896 article, due to "unfortunate investments" Miss Stafford never received any enjoyment from her windfall.

Interesting also is the note that the flag, when originally presented to Lieut. Stafford was "stained with the blood of American patriots." (Only 79 of more than 300 members of Jones' crew on the Bonhomme were actually Americans.) According to the Peterson report, Stafford's wife washed all the blood out of the flag and sewed up the bullet holes made by British gunfire. The patches were later removed to show the holes when the flag was displayed in the 19th century.

Mrs/ Safford says she was planning to donate the flag to the Smithsonian. They tell us it was never received or displayed there, so the next question is -- who has the Strafford flag today?  Okay, all your flag detectives. go to work.

By J. Dennis Robinson

Source: Special thanks to Robert Marshalls of Geneseo, IL for sending us a copy of The Peterson Magazine article that he recently purchased on eBay. Images from that magazine.

ALSO READ: Paul Jones Flag Unfurled
AND VISIT: Our John Paul Jones pagess

In about 1947 I was given a gift of a 12 star 13 stripe flag approximately 4 by 6 feet. It prompted me to do some research on US flags. The first place where I discovered the story of the Bon Homme Richard flag was in a private publication byGeorge Henry Preble printed in 1874 entitled "Three Historic Flags and Three September Victories". I still have the flag, but the arrangement of stars is 3 along the mast and 4 parallel to the stripes. The prior owner of the flag was an artist named Murphy. He was a widower. His deceased wife's name was Adah Smith Murphy. It was supposed to have been Sarah Smith Stafford who gave a strip of the flag along the pole to Abraham Lincoln thus leaving only twelve stars but still 13 stripes. And of course it was supposed to have been a Lt. Stafford who rescued the flag when it fell into the sea during the engagement of the Bon Homme Richard with the Serapis.
Sylvain Segal

Copyright © 2004 by All rights reserved.

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