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In Search of John Paul Jones’ Bonhomme Richard

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Battle between Continental Ship Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis, 23 September 1779

By George Schwarz, Ph.D, Underwater Archaeology Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command

Almost annually since 2006, Naval History and Heritage Command, in partnership with other U.S. Navy commands, the French Navy, and non-profit organizations, has been involved in the search for Revolutionary War shipwreck Bonhomme Richard in the North Sea. The ship, captained by John Paul Jones, engaged in fierce combat with HMS Serapis during the Battle of Flamborough Heserad off the English coast on Sept. 23, 1779. Although emerging victorious from the battle, Bonhomme Richard was irreparably damaged, and, despite all the efforts to save the ship, sank into the North Sea on Sept. 25, 1779. The remains of the vessel, representing one of the most notable victories of the U.S. Continental Navy, have not yet been found.

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A deep water dive launch from USNS GRASP. Photo by Alexis Catsambis, July 2011

Using information obtained from an array of historical documents referring to the Battle of Flamborough Head, drift models have been developed in collaboration with the U.S. Naval Academy which project possible trajectories of Bonhomme Richard before she sank. Using geographic information systems and both hand-plotted and computer drift models, possible search areas were defined for each survey season. In all, over 900 square nautical miles have been surveyed and a number of wreck sites investigated utilizing a variety of archaeological and oceanographic equipment including sonar equipment, remotely operated vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles, aerial magnetometer, a nuclear research submarine, and military divers. The systematic approach taken by the project team has narrowed the search area during each year of survey, and dozens of shipwrecks have been discovered.

In 2012, a joint U.S.–French Navy and Ocean Technology Foundation survey discovered a site of interest, which was reexamined briefly in 2013 to confirm the existence of timbers, concretions, and an encrusted iron anchor. The French navy returned to the site in 2014 and deployed divers to further investigate the site and collect more digital video of wreck site features. Based on available data, this wreck site is believed to be from the late 18th or early 19th century, and is the primary target for a 2016 investigation.

Naval History and Heritage Command will be working with U.S. 6th Fleet, Naval Oceanography Mine Warfare Center, Military Sealift Command, the French navy, and Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration to conduct a survey using side scan sonar and marine magnetometers to investigate this wreck site and to expand coverage from previous surveys during the 2016 survey, which is scheduled to take place during the 1st week of September.

While there has not been an underwater site that meets the criteria for Bonhomme Richard to date (with the possible exception of the target currently under investigation), each survey brings the team steadily closer to discovering the final resting place of Bonhomme Richard.

In addition to being one of the U.S. Navy’s first commissioned fighting ships, the remains of Bonhomme Richard are of particular interest to NHHC for the potential to conduct archaeological investigations of the wreck site, which could provide important information about the construction of 18th-century warships, life of period Sailors aboard sea-going vessels, naval battle tactics, diversity of crewmembers, navigational equipment, rigging characteristics of Revolutionary warships, and many other topics regarding life at sea and commemoration of the Battle of Flamborough Head.

Editor’s note: Keep up with the story, read Part Two here!