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Did Betsy Ross really make the first American flag?


The Betsy Ross Flag Story
The Betsy Ross House in Philidelphia still stands today. If the famous story is true, this is where George Washington asked Ross to make the first flag.
The Betsy Ross House in Philidelphia still stands today. If the famous story is true, this is where George Washington asked Ross to make the first flag.
AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

Curiously, the colonists never heard the Betsy Ross story. In fact, it didn't become popular until nearly a century after its supposed occurrence. In 1870, Ross' grandson, William Canby, publicized the story in a speech to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for his paper "The History of the Flag of the United States." Although Canby could offer no concrete evidence, he claimed he'd heard the story straight from his grandmother.

Canby explained that Col. George Washington was a family friend who had frequently visited Ross' shop professionally and socially before the famous encounter. However, no written evidence suggests that Washington knew or did business with Ross. On the other hand, historians know that George Ross, another of the three visitors in the story, was the uncle of John Ross, Betsy's husband who'd recently died in a gunpowder explosion. It's certainly plausible that if George Ross were looking for a seamstress, he'd go to Betsy Ross.

One could suppose that hard evidence from Congress could put this matter to rest. After all, the story claims that the three visitors represented a congressional committee. Unfortunately, this evidence isn't as conclusive as we might expect. We know that Congress passed a law about the flag on June 14, 1777, which included vague language about the flag having 13 red and white stripes and 13 white stars on a blue field. Yet there's no surviving evidence of a congressional flag committee in 1776. Some maintain that even if there were such a committee, Washington, who was not a member of Congress, wouldn't have been be a part of it [source: Crews].

Among the scant evidence surrounding the story, one other item stands out. The record shows that on May 29, 1777, the Pennsylvania State Navy Board paid Ross a notable sum for her work making American flags [source: Betsy Ross House]. Although this doesn't necessarily mean she sewed the first flag, it's clear she was involved in making early American flags.

But we haven't yet touched on another facet of this controversy. Some historians claim that if anyone deserves credit for designing the first American flag, it's Francis Hopkinson.


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