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Inspiration

Betsy Ross and the U.S. Flag

We know she was a skilled upholsterer, but did Betsy Ross create the first U.S. flag?

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1777 United States flag. Photo: Nixx Photography/Shutterstock.com.

Most of us grew up learning that Betsy Ross created the first United States flag. As a sewing enthusiast, I always found it such a treat to hear about a historical figure who sewed. However, further research indicates that there are no records showing Betsy designed or sewed the first U.S. flag.

Grandson shares his research

In fact, no one credited Betsy Ross as the flag creator during her lifetime, aside from relatives and friends to whom she told this story. It wasn’t until Betsy’s grandson William Canby made a speech to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870 that Betsy was first recognized as the flag’s creator. While Canby conducted thorough research into the history of the flag and interviewed his mother and two aunts (all of whom were Betsy’s daughters) and one of Betsy’s nieces before presenting his findings, it was too late to get firsthand knowledge by this time.

An upholsterer by trade

Certainly there are conflicting stories, but here is what Canby believed to be true:

Elizabeth Griscom was born into a Quaker family in Pennsylvania on January 1, 1752. She was one of 17 children born to Samuel and Rebecca Griscom. As a child, Betsy learned to sew in school and from her great aunt Sarah. Betsy especially loved creating quilts and samplers as a child. Therefore, when she finished school at age 12, her father arranged for her to become an apprentice for a local upholsterer. Back then, upholsterers did more than just cover furniture. Some even made flags. As it turns out, John Ross also worked as an apprentice at the upholstery shop. The two became friends and eventually fell in love. This was to Betsy’s parents’ dismay, however, since John was not a Quaker. Betsy decided John was more important, nonetheless, and ended up leaving her faith to marry John on November 4, 1773. In 1775, the two set up their own upholstery shop in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, John joined the army and ended up dying after an explosion in 1776. At age 24, Betsy became a widow.

Five-pointed stars

Despite her husband’s death, Betsy wanted to keep the business going. This was especially difficult during the Revolutionary War when many businesses were struggling. That is, until a few men, two of whom included John Ross’s uncle, Col. George Ross, and Col. George Washington entered Betsy’s shop one day hoping she could help make them a flag to unite the country.

This illustration depicts General George Washington, Major George Ross, Robert Morris, and Betsy Ross with the first American flag, approved by Congress on June 14, 1777. Illustration: Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com.

The men showed her a sketch proposing the flag contain six-pointed stars and be in the shape of a square. Betsy explained that it would be much easier to make a five-pointed star and suggested that the flag be a rectangle instead.

The men agreed, and on June 14th, 1777, the flag was approved at a meeting of Congress, making it the official flag of the United States.

It is thought that Betsy Ross suggested using five-pointed stars on the U.S. flag, since it only took one scissor snip to make them. Illustration source: https://www.lonsafko.com/short_stories/betsyross/starinstruct.html.

 

American icon

A living history reenactment of the making of the first American flag in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com.

Although we will probably never know if Betsy created the original U.S. flag, there are indications she was paid as a flag maker during the Revolutionary War.

“Mrs. Ross received the employment of flag-making with government, and continued it for many years,” her grandson (Canby) had told the Pennsylvania Historical Society, as published in History of the Flag of the United States of America, second revised edition, by George Henry Preble (A. Williams and Company, 1880).

Preble’s book also quoted a letter Canby later wrote stating that Betsy Ross had passed on this skill to her daughter—Canby’s aunt: “This aunt, Mrs. Clarissa Wilson, succeeded to the business, and continued making flags for the navy-yard and arsenals and for the mercantile marine for many years, until, being conscientious on the subject of war, she gave up the government business, but continued the mercantile until 1857.”

Some believe the flag evolved from the work of many people, or was the work of a committee. Earl P. Williams, Jr., author of What You Should Know About the American Flag, revised edition (Thomas Publications, 1996) has long argued that Continental Congressman Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey designed an American flag, and a flag for the U.S. Navy. That latter flag became the prototype for the official American flag.

Regardless of the conflicting reports, Betsy Ross has become an American legend. She was a true patriot who volunteered her time during the war, a loving mother, and a successful business owner who worked until her mid 70s. To learn more about Betsy Ross, check out this website to read her grandson’s speech. In addition, you can take a tour of the restored Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, where she is thought to have sewn the first flag.

 

Additional sources

Betsy Ross by Jane Duden (Capstone Press, 2002).

Betsy Ross by Vicky Franchino (The Child’s World, 2003).

 

Did you know about the Betsy Ross flag controversy? Do you think she actually created the first U.S. flag? Please share your comments below.

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