The legend of Betsy Ross and the history of the American flag

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Almost everyone knows the story of Betsy Ross and her stars and stripes design that became what is now known as the American Flag. However, is the story true? Were there other flags before what we sometimes call Old Glory? Historians are not in agreement as to the truth behind the legends, as the hard evidence has been lost in the mist of time.

Early History

Elizabeth Grissom, born in the colony of Pennsylvania in 1736, was one of 16 brothers and sisters. As a child, her household chores involved sewing her brothers’ and sisters’ clothes. Betsy, as her parents called her, went to school at a time when few girls received an education, and, at 12 years old, she took a job sewing tablecloths, curtains, and bedspreads by hand.

This is where she met a young man named John Ross. The two eventually got married and opened a sewing shop of their own, living a peaceful life until the 13 colonies rebelled against the Crown of England.

John Ross was an early casualty of the Revolutionary War. Perhaps because of her grief over her husband’s passing (who was taken prisoner and sent to an English jail), or perhaps due to a diligent sense of duty, Betsy continued working in the shop the two started together. By 1777, Ross had married her second husband (she married three times), and, legend has it, created history.

As the war continued in early 1776, Ross contributed to the Revolutionary War effort by making uniforms and naval flags for the Continental Navy and Army, allegedly even making a uniform for George Washington. Throughout the Revolution, Betsy Ross continued her upholstery business, repairing uniforms and making tents and blankets to aid in the war effort, in addition to making stuffed paper tube cartridges with musket balls for Washington’s army.

The Legend

The idea that Betsy Ross designed the first American flag was not mentioned until nearly a century after the American Revolution. According to her grandson, George Washington visited Betsy Ross’s shop in the spring of 1776. Washington was in Philadelphia in late spring of that year, serving in a committee with John Ross’s uncle, George Read. Congress had approved $50,000 for the acquisition of tents and “sundry articles” to support the Continental Army.

Washington asked Betsy to make a new flag, which would eventually become the official flag of the United States of America. According to records, by May 29th of the following year, Betsy Ross was paid a large sum for making flags by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board.

The Grand Union Flag

The summer of 1776 is regarded as the beginning of the United States of America proper. On June 28th, the United States Declaration of Independence was presented to Congress, but the flag would not be legally authorized by Congress until June 1, 1777. Until then, the Grand Union Flag of the Continental Army, adopted in 1775, had been flown. This flag had the British Union Jack in the top left corner against a background of thirteen alternating red and white stripes meant to represent the thirteen colonies.

The Grand Union flag was the first of the true American flags. George Washington liked the design so much that he chose it to be flown to celebrate the formation of the Continental Army on New Year’s Day, 1776. On that day, the Grand Union flag was raised on Prospect Hill in Somerville, near Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

However, for a new nation, a new design was needed to replace the Union Jack.

The New Design

According to sources, Washington had a specific idea of how the flag would look like, and gave Betsy a drawing of the image he wanted to use. Originally, General Washington wanted thirteen six-pointed stars, but Ross suggested changing the six-pointed stars to five points, in order to complete the flag all the more quickly. George Washington agreed and, thus, five-pointed stars became an international symbol of nationhood.

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As an experienced designer, Ross knew that by simple folds and with one snip of the scissors, five-pointed stars could be easily cut out from fabric and sewn on quickly.

Current vexillologists—those who study the history, symbolism, and use of flags—can neither prove or disprove the Betsy Ross legend. There is evidence that George Washington had a connection to Ross via her husband. Evidence also demonstrates that General Washington was in Philadelphia in the spring of 1776, and that Ross received payment from the congressional government for making flags from a budget that George Washington had received for tents and sundry.

For skeptical vexillologists, perhaps only a dated receipt that reads “national flag,” written and signed by George Washington, could prove the legend is true. Others will only say they can neither confirm nor deny the legend.

Vexillologists acknowledge that several upholsterers were tasked with tent-making in Philadelphia at the time. They claim that any one of them could have created the first American flag flown in the summer of 1776.

Francis Hopkinson

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Credit: WikiMedia Commons

Many believe that Francis Hopkinson created the first American flag. Margaret Manny is also said to have made the first flag with the Continental Colors motif or the Grand Union flag.

According to Willian J. Canby, Betsy’s grandson, who gave the first account of her story nearly a century after the events took place, other flag makers working in Philadelphia could have all been making different variations of the same flag that may have inspired Betsy Ross to create the flag we use today.

Final Thoughts

Even though no one has found definitive proof that Betsy Ross is the American flag’s creator, the story is compelling.

From the Star-Spangled Banner all the way to the Yellow Star on the Chinese communist flag, all have the legendary Betsy Ross and her American ingenuity to thank for their five-pointed national symbols.

While the facts can only be proven by hard evidence, the flag from the Revolutionary seamstress from Pennsylvania remains the most accepted version of the creator of Old Glory.

The article was submitted to us by the resourceful folks over at AmericanFlags.com

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