The first USS
Bonhomme Richard, formerly Duc de Duras, was a frigate in
the Continental Navy.
She was originally an East Indiaman, a merchant ship built
in France for the French East India Company in 1765, for
service between France and the Orient. She was placed at the
disposal of John Paul Jones on February 4, 1779, by King
Louis XVI of France as a result of a loan to the United
States by French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray.
Jones renamed her Bonhomme Richard, the French language
equivalent of "Poor Richard," in honor of Benjamin
Franklin's almanac called Poor Richard's Almanac.
On June 19, 1779, Bonhomme Richard sailed from Lorient
accompanied by Alliance, Pallas, Vengeance, and Cerf with
troop transports and merchant vessels under convoy to
Bordeaux and to cruise against the British in the Bay of
Biscay. Forced to return to port for repair, the squadron
sailed again August 14, 1779. Going northwest around the
west coast of the British Isles into the North Sea and then
down the east coast the squadron took 16 merchant vessels as
On September 23, 1779, they encountered the Baltic Fleet of
41 sail under convoy of HMS Serapis (44) and Countess of
Scarborough (22) near Flamborough Head. After 18:00 Bonhomme
Richard engaged Serapis and a bitter engagement ensued
during the next four hours that cost the lives of nearly
half the American and British crews. At first, a British
victory seemed inevitable as the more heavily armed Serapis
used its superior firepower to rake Bonhomme Richard with
devastating effect, killing Americans by the score. However,
the Americans eventually pulled along side and lashed the
two ships together. An attempt by the Americans to board
Serapis was repulsed, as was an attempt by the British to
board Bonhomme Richard. Finally, an American party under
command of Nathaniel Fanning seized control of the enemy
tops and used this position to clear the deck below with
grenades, mortars and gunfire, causing Serapis to strike its
colors. Bonhomme Richard, shattered, on fire, and leaking
badly defied all efforts to save her and sank at 11:00 on
September 25, 1779. John Paul Jones sailed the captured
Serapis to the United Provinces for repairs.
Though Bonhomme Richard sank subsequent to the battle, the
outcome of the battle convinced the French crown of the
wisdom of backing the colonies in their fight to separate
from British authority. The defeat of Serapis, no less in
home waters, stung the British admiralty.
Bonhomme Richard's final resting location is the subject of
much speculation. A number of efforts have been conducted to
locate the wreck. As of 2005, these efforts have been
unsuccessful. The location of the wreck is presumed to be
Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, a headland near where her
final battle took place in approximately 180 feet of water.
The number of other wrecks in the area and a century of
fishing trawling operations have complicated all searches.