Designed in 1779 with 13 stripes alternating red, white and blue. The Serapis flag was raised by Captain John Paul Jones on the British Frigate ship Serapis during the most famous Revolutionary naval battle.
John Paul Jones
He was born John Paul in Scotland in 1747 and went to sea when he was only twelve years old. By the time he arrived in Philadelphia in 1775 as an experienced sea captain, he had changed his name to John Paul Jones.
After conducting sea raids on the coast of Britain, he took command in 1779 of a rebuilt French merchant ship, renamed the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard to honor Benjamin Franklin.
The Serapis Flag – 1779
The Serapis flag was not an “official” U.S. flag, since it did not meet the standards set by Congress in the 1777 Flag Act.
In 1778, the Dutch Ambassador requested a description of the United States flag from Ambassador Benjamin Franklin. It is believed that Franklin had not yet received news on the 1777 Flag Act and, unaware that an official national flag existed, provided a description of what is now known as the “Serapis flag”.
Along with the description were orders that this flag be officially recognized on the seas. The Serapis flag sketch from Dutch naval records survives, verifying Franklin’s description.
Striking the Colors
In the 1779 naval battle of Flamborough Head, the Bonhomme Richard, captained by John Paul Jones, engaged in battle with Captain Richard Pearson’s Serapis in the North Sea, sailing in close, lashing his vessel to the British ship, and fighting the battle at point blank range.
During the battle, two cannon burst and the colors were shot down from the mast of the Bonhomme Richard.
In naval battles, “striking the colors” is a sign of surrender, and Captain Pearson of the Serapis asked Jones of he intended to surrender.
Here, it is believed Jones gave his famous reply, “I have not yet begun to fight!,” continuing the battle and forcing the Serapis to surrender.
Though victorious, the Bonhomme Richard was beyond repair and Jones transferred his crew to the Serapis, sailing to the Dutch port of Texel. There, the British ambassador accused Jones of piracy, since the captured Serapis was not flying a recognized national ensign.
However, the earlier documented description provided by Benjamin Franklin existed in the Dutch archives and saved Jones from British charges of piracy.
The Serapis flag was featured on a stamp in the U.S. Postal Service’s Stars and Stripes series in 2000.