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Build a Fleet of Boats

And Pretend You're Naval Hero John Paul Jones


Today's Snack: Take a look at today's supplies, and you'll know what's for snack: Walnuts!






42 empty walnut half-shells


Nutcracker, flat screwdriver, hammer, or other tools to pry walnuts open


42 little balls of clay, 1/2" in diameter


42 toothpicks


42 1"X 2" rectangles of wax paper


2 plastic meat trays


2 large straws


2 large squares of waxed paper


Print out this British Union Jack flag, or copy it on a small piece of paper; you will need two small paper flags:


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Extra clay


Five 4-oz clear, hard plastic cups


5 smaller straws, or large straws cut in half


Extra clay and waxed paper


Print out these five American Revolutionary flags, or copy them on small pieces of paper; you will need 5 of these flags:


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Large galvanized tub, kiddie wading pool or other large water-holding vessel


Blue food coloring


Small nail


Short length of string or twine



This makes a fun project to do alone, with one friend or with a small group as a demonstration for other students.


While you make your little mini-boats, one student can read this story, or an adult can read it while you work. You are going to make 42 "merchant ships" out of walnut shells, two large British "frigates" (pronounced "FRIGG-it," and they are warships), and five small American fighting ships.


You'll probably need to buy extra walnuts, since you'll probably crush some while you're trying to crack them into two pieces neatly and come up with 42 half-shells. But that's OK: if you wreck the shell, you can still eat the nut!


To crack a walnut open neatly, use an ordinary nutcracker, but gradually squeeze. Don't squeeze too suddenly or you're likely to crush the halves. You might want to use a flat screwdriver to pry the two sides apart after you've started opening them with the nutcracker. Or you can hold the walnut on the pavement with the pointed side up, and lightly tap it with a hammer.


nutcracker method


To make the boats: Put clay ball inside each walnut shell. Make a sail by poking the toothpick through a square of wax paper sail two times. Stick the toothpick mast and the sail into the clay inside the shell.


To make the larger British frigates, follow the same process with the two meat trays and the straws, only use scissors to poke holes in larger squares of waxed paper and stick them into clay. Attach the flags to the straws the same way. If you want to be more realistic, use more straws and "sails" and put a "spar," or horizontal piece sticking out in front of the frigate, and maybe some rolled-up paper tubes to represent the guns coming out of the sides:



To make the five American ships, use the plastic cups and smaller straws, since they were smaller ships than the British ones. Don't forget the American flags, too.


Fill a large galvanized tub or a kiddie wading pool with water. You can add several drops of blue food coloring to make it look more like the sea.


OK . . . now for the story that you are going to reenact. You can do this alone or with a group of students.


Modern-day warships are a wonder of nautical engineering. "Nautical" refers to ships, sailors and navigation. Today's ships of war are gigantic, amazing, high-tech and beautifully designed. Their missiles can pierce through a foot of steel. They can fire artillery shells miles and miles away.


The ships of the past can't compare. They were small, made of wood, and moved by wind in their sails rather than engines, so they weren't very fast. Their cannonballs only weighed six or 12 pounds, usually, which is tiny compared to today's weaponry.


But the SAILORS and NAVY LEADERS of the past are every bit as good as today's naval heroes.


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One of the most famous of all Navy heroes in American history was John Paul Jones (1747-92). He was born in Scotland and started off his sailing career working on British ships. But the cruelty of the British slave trade disgusted him, so he made America his home. His leadership in many brave battles caused him to rise to become the commodore, or leader of a group of ships, for the American Revolutionary Navy.


Many people say that he was the leader in the greatest sea fight ever seen. It happened in 1779, in British waters, during the American Revolutionary War.


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John Paul Jones



Keeping in mind the recent disclosure that there are a lot of pirates off the northeast coast of Africa, terrorizing merchant ships and holding hostages to get millions of dollars, it's interesting to note that that kind of behavior was going on, bigtime, during the Revolutionary War period in the late 1700s. In fact, the British hated John Paul Jones so much for how many British ships he vanquished, that they called him a "pirate"!


But both sides were doing it. By 1781, the American Congress had actually commissioned, or paid for, more than 450 private ships to go out onto the seas and attack British ships that were carrying guns, gunpowder, food and other supplies to equip the British soldiers and sailors fighting us in the American Revolutionary War.


Those ships were called "privateers," and they were equipped with guns to fight British war ships, too. They weren't "pirates," since they were working for an organized government. But they weren't in the military; they were privately-owned ships.


During the American Revolutionary War, American privateers captured nearly 2,000 British merchant ships and 16 British war ships, but British privateers didn't capture a single American warship.


A key reason for that was the bravery of John Paul Jones. Even though he only had five ships and most of his sailors were recently released from English prisons, they were really good sailors. They prowled around the seas near the British Isles to capture merchant vessels just as they were setting out for America to restock British soldiers, so that they could send the goods to the Americans instead of to the British.


In September 1779 John Paul Jones came upon a large fleet of 42 merchant ships with lots of supplies on board that the American Revolutionary Army really needed. But that fleet was protected by two British frigates, which had 42 and 22 guns, respectively. So they had many more guns that could fire much heavier cannonballs than Jones had.


Now let's reenact the sea battle:


1. Float all 42 merchant ships in the tub, protected by the two large British frigates, on one side of the tub. Now have the 5 American ships sail toward them.


2. A British ship fired many big cannonballs at the ship John Paul Jones was on, the Bon Homme Richard (French for "Good Man Richard"). Since it was a rotten, old boat, it began to leak. (Poke a small nail through one plastic cup representing the American boats several times, so that it begins to slowly leak)


3. Someone pretend to be the captain of the British ship, who shouted form his bigger ship to John Paul Jones: "Have you surrendered?"


4. Someone else pretend to be John Paul Jones, who shouted back, "I have not yet begun to fight!" (That's a really famous, brave quote from him)


5. Meanwhile, two of the other American ships "herded" the other British ship, the Countess of Scarborough, a far distance away from the other British ship - "divide and conquer" -- and after a battle, vanquished that ship.


6. Meanwhile, Commodore Jones knew that he couldn't win a battle of big guns since the Brits had much bigger gunpower than he did. So he had to do something different to win. He ordered his ship tied to the British ship, side by side (use the string or twine and tie these two ships by their masts) Why? So that his boat was too close to the British one for the British gunners to get their port windows open so that they could fire and load their guns.


6. Then another "boat" under the American flag came up mysteriously and fired two cannonballs into Jones' ship. (Stick it with another pin) Turns out that John Paul Jones had to get other captains from the nation of France since he was so far from America, and it is thought that the French captain was a traitor in this fight)


7. But things were about to get even worse. Then an American officer let free about 200 or 300 British prisoners who were in the "hold" of Jones' ship, fearing that they might drown if the ship sank, and they all came up on board the ship. At the same time, an American crewman tried to take down the American flag, crying to the British for mercy. But John Paul Jones knocked him down by throwing a pistol at his head. He would sink or burn, but he would NEVER give up the ship!


8. Now that there were 200 or 300 more "hands" on board, they were put to work pumping water out to save the sinking ship, and fought the fires that started. That was helping!


9. Then the remaining two American ships came over and started attacking the British ship from the other side. Teamwork!


10. Then a sailor dropped a hand grenade into an open hatch of the British ship, which made a bunch of gun cartridges explode, killing 20 gunners and wounding many more, and setting the British ship on fire. John Paul Jones piled on, loading and firing his small, 9-pound cannonballs himself, until the British captain freaked out and pulled down the British flag from his ship.


11. "Cease firing!" John Paul Jones immediately shouted. He then confiscated both British ships and all the merchant ships.


12. However, John Paul Jones' ship did sink . . . but he brought all the guns, ammunition and food on board the 42 merchant ships to Holland, which was a neutral country, and eventually to America, to help the American Revolution succeed.




John Paul Jones was also the first American to raise a flag on an American ship before the Revolutionary War began. It was very brave for him to do this. It happened on board the Delaware, that was harbored at Philadelphia at Christmastime in 1775. This happened just as the first fleet - or group of ships - was going into action.


In those days, we didn't have the American flag we know now, though. So first, he raised a huge flag of yellow silk that had a green pine tree on it, with a coiled rattlesnake, and the warning motto, "DON'T TREAD ON ME." That became a famous motto for the American Revolutionary War.


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The crowd went wild. They wanted to go to war against the British to win American freedom.


Then John Paul Jones put up another flag, and you can see that it was the model for our flag today. He made sure that it was on file with foreign governments so that, when his ships captured other ships, it was clear that his ships were not pirates or criminals, but working in concert with the Continental Congress back in what was about to become the United States of America. The flag had 13 stripes, alternating red and white, and in the corner there was the British flag, the "Union Jack."


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Though there were no stars then, they came after the Declaration of Independence the following year, and the union of the states.



By Susan Darst Williams Americanism 06 2009




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