Navy Archaeologists Dive into the History of Bonhomme Richard

Feb. 4, 2015 | By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tim Comerford, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
A painting by William Gilkerson of the battle between the Continental Navy frigate Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis, Beverley R. Robinson Collection, US Naval Academy Museum.

When Capt. John Paul Jones accepted command of the frigate that would become Bonhomme Richard on Feb. 4, 1779, he had no idea a future battle aboard would both illustrate his career and be a rallying call to arms centuries later. And just like the man who commanded her, the wooden frigate continues to pique the interest of scientists and Sailors alike 236 years after her sinking. Pirate, privateer, patriot, courageous, glory-hound are just a few of the words used to describe Jones. Contentious though his life might have been, he was a bantamweight courageously entering the ring to take on the heavyweight that was the British Royal Navy during the Revolutionary War. Jones' ship, originally named Duc de Duras, was a gift from France. In keeping with the ship's French heritage, Jones renamed the ship Bonhomme Richard, which translated to "Goodman Richard," a nod to the nom de plume "Poor Richard" used by Benjamin Franklin, America's commissioner at Paris. His famous almanacs had been published in France under the title, Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard. On Sept. 23, 1779, a little less than eight months after Jones assumed command, Bonhomme Richard engaged the Royal Navy frigate HMS Seripis during the Battle of Flamborough Head, off the English coast. After an initial volley of fire, two of the American frigate's guns were destroyed and many Sailors injured. Jones realized he was outgunned by a more powerful and faster opponent. When the captain of the British ship asked if Jones' ship would strike her colors to surrender, Jones famously answered, "I have not yet begun to fight!" As the chance of victory appeared to begin slipping through his fingers, Jones came up with a dangerous plan. He moved his ship closer to Serapis where he thought he could board her or have his sharpshooters pick off her men and officers. When Bonhomme Richard moved into position, Serapis' anchor fouled in Bonhomme Richard's hull, holding the two ships together. Jones strengthened the bonds with grappling hooks. After a bloody and brutal four hour fight, Serapis surrendered at last. Sadly, Bonhomme Richard was critically damaged, on fire and taking on water fast. Despite all efforts to save the ship, she sank into the North Sea two days later.

Capt. John Paul Jones bids goodbye to his victorious ship, Bonhomme Richard, from aboard his new prize, HMS Serapis. Painting by Percy Moran.

Before she went down, Jones transferred his crew to their newest prize, Serapis, and sailed to Texel Roads, Holland. Jones stayed busy for the remainder of the war and the 12 years of life he had left, so he may never have looked back to Bonhomme Richard. More than 200 years later, the Naval History and Heritage Command's Underwater Archeology Branch actively seeks to piece together a more thorough picture of Bonhomme Richard to see what clues it might reveal about her historic master. "It's one of the Navy's most important ships because of its role in Navy history," said Robert Neyland, Ph.D., UA director. The victory helped to raise American morale when the war was not going too well and helped confirm to the French that the Americans were a cause worth supporting.

A deep water dive launch from USNS Grasp to asses possible targets as part of the search for Bonhomme Richard in July 2011. U.S. Navy Photo by Alexis Catsambis.

In an effort to find Jones' lost vessel, Neyland and the rest of his tea at NHHC have been investigating sites and putting together pieces of information for the last eight years. "Since 2006 there have been various expeditions," Neyland said, explaining there have been many partners in the search, from governments, to companies and private entities. "It's been on a basis of ships of opportunity. When some French minesweepers have been in the area they have donated a few days of survey time."

Oceanographer Kevin Dial of the Naval Oceanographic Office rinses an autonomous underwater vehicle after recovering it from the North Sea onto USNS Henson during a Sept. 2010 expedition attempting to locate Bonhomme Richard. U.S. Navy photo by Rebecca Burke.

It's not an easy task. The passage of centuries can cause a significant amount of damage to wood, even below the surface of the ocean, and the ship was badly damaged by the combat already. "It's a large area to survey, the water depth ranges from 160-200 feet, 15-20 miles off shore and 500 square nautical miles," he said. "The weather and seas are volatile out there and the ship may be partially or completely buried by sediment. Shipwrecks tend to break apart and bury themselves in sediment. They may be exposed at times and at other time buried." And the Bonhomme Richard would hardly be alone under the waves. "Recently the French Navy and the Ocean Technology Foundation found a wooden-hulled ship wreck that probably dates between the late 18th century and early 19th century," Neyland said. "It hasn't been ruled out totally that it is not Bonhomme Richard. But, it definitely shows that older wooden ships can still be preserved under the North Sea sediments." The top scientist at UA isn't daunted by the monumental task of finding an artifact under miles of ocean and sand. He and his team continue to utilize scientific research to find Bonhomme Richard and others of interest. "There's not a shipwreck out there that can't be found," he said.

For more information on the Naval History and Heritage Command and the NHHC's Underwater Archaeology Branch visit our website at