The story of America's founding wouldn't be complete without images of Betsy Ross dutifully stitching stars onto a flag in her upholstery shop in Philadelphia or presenting it proudly to George Washington himself. This moment is depicted in a famous painting, "The Birth of Our Nation's Flag," (seen above) created by Charles Weisgerber in 1893. It shows Ross seated by an open window amidst scraps of red, white and blue silk, holding out the flag to a trio of colonial gentlemen.
On the painting is written: "The National Standard was made by Betsy Ross in 1776 at 239 Arch Street, Philadelphia in the room represented in this picture. The Committee, Robert Morris and Hon. George Ross, accompanied by General George Washington called upon this Celebrated Woman and together with her suggestions produced our beautiful Emblem of Liberty."
While this painting and others like it did much to cement Betsy Ross into America's national mythology, the facts about Ross's true role in the creation of the first U.S. flag are very cloudy.
Ross remains both a mythologized character in a folk tale and a real, historical person who may or may not have done the thing people all know her for doing.
What else do we know about Betsy Ross's life? What influence does her legend have on American patriotism? And what's the real story about the creation of the American flag? Let's find out.
The Life of Betsy Ross
Elizabeth Griscom was born on Jan. 1, 1752 to Samuel and Rebecca Griscom. The Griscom family had a sprawling presence in colonial Pennsylvania — Samuel's grandfather, Andrew Griscom, was a carpenter who was one of the earliest settlers in the Philadelphia area and built a significant portion of the city's first houses and buildings himself [source: Miller]. Both Samuel's and Rebecca's families had roots in Pennsylvania's Quaker religious sect.
Samuel and Rebecca had 17 children, but only nine of them lived to become adults. All of them were raised under the strict moral rules of Pennsylvania Quakerism. At age 15, Elizabeth (whom everyone called Betsy by then) was apprenticed to an upholsterer named John Webster, where she learned to sew, embroider and stitch drapes, furniture and sometimes flags [source: Historic Philadelphia].
It was there that she met John Ross, a fellow apprentice who eventually opened his own shop. John Ross's family was well-connected in the colonies — his uncle George Ross Jr., was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Betsy and Ross fell in love, which was a problem because John was an Anglican. Betsy's Quaker upbringing forbade her from marry a non-Quaker. So, the two eloped and married in New Jersey in 1773, which resulted in Betsy's expulsion by the Quakers and disownment by the Griscom family [source: Miller].
The Revolutionary War also brought turmoil to John and Betsy's lives. They were both firmly in favor of American independence, and the citizens of Philadelphia were busy forming associations and local militias throughout 1775 to defend the city. The specific details of John and Betsy Ross's wartime activities are unknown, but at some point in 1775, something happened to John Ross. His true fate was never recorded, and apparently Betsy didn't like to talk about it, so the facts of his life weren't passed down to subsequent generations. He may have been injured while participating in militia activities such as guarding gunpowder supplies, although there are rumors he suffered from a severe mental illness. In any case, Betsy became a widow on Jan. 21, 1776 [source: Miller]. After John's death, Betsy began attending meetings of the Free Quakers, also known as the Fighting Quakers, a splinter group that rejected the pacifism of mainline Quakers in order to support the war for independence.
Betsy Ross eventually married twice more. Her second husband Joseph Ashburn died in a British prison, but she lived in Philadelphia with her third husband, John Claypoole, for more than 20 years, until his death in 1817. She worked successfully as an upholsterer for most of her life, dying in 1836 at the age of 84. She was survived by five daughters.
You're probably wondering if there's something missing from Betsy Ross's life story, like maybe the one thing everyone knows her for. There's not much information about her involvement in the creation of the first American flag. No one really knows the true role she played. But Americans all know the legend of the Betsy Ross flag.
The Legend of Betsy Ross and the American Flag
The story of the Betsy Ross flag is one Americans have told for more than 100 years. It goes like this:
Betsy Ross is working in her upholstery shop when a small group of men rushes in, a committee officially tasked by the Continental Congress with designing and creating the first American flag. Among them are Betsy's late husband's uncle, George Ross Jr., and George Washington himself. "We need a flag made," the men say.
"I can make you a flag," Betsy assuredly tells them.
The men have a sketch of a design, one with 13 stripes and 13 stars in a circular formation in the upper left. Betsy looks it over and makes a few suggestions regarding measurements and proportions. She points to the stars, which in the sketch have six points. "Five-pointed stars would be much better. Far easier to cut," she tells them.
The committee agrees, and a new sketch is drawn on the spot, incorporating Betsy's input. She goes to work, dutifully sewing together a grand old flag. It takes a few days, since it's a pretty big flag, but she finally finishes and delivers it to the committee.
The committee members fly the new flag on the mast of a ship to see how it looks, and they unanimously approve of this new "Star-Spangled Banner." The new nation is going to need lots of these flags, to fly as a symbol of liberty over every public building and every military outpost and naval vessel. "We need more flags, Betsy," they tell her. "Lots more."
It's a great story that provides a simple answer to the question: Who made the first American flag? Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence that it ever happened.
The Betsy Ross legend comes from one of her grandchildren, William J. Canby, who in 1870 wrote down the story and gave a speech to the Pennsylvania Historical Society based on recollections of family lore. At the time, America was looking forward to the 1876 centennial celebration, fueling an increase in patriotism and interest in stories about the nation's founding. Betsy Ross had been dead for more than 30 years by then.
That's not to say that Canby was lying or that Betsy Ross didn't play some role in the creation of the American flag — it just means there's no way to prove that she made the first flag. There are no records of a flag committee being formed, and some question as to whether George Washington would have been involved or was even in Philadelphia when the fateful meeting supposedly happened, in June 1776 [source: Teachout].
But family stories are an important part of history all the same, and it's unlikely the Ross/Claypoole family would have invented such a story out of whole cloth. Betsy was possibly involved in making early flags in some capacity. But the real story of the Stars and Stripes is more complicated and less certain.
The Truth About the Flag
It's impossible to trace the origin of the first American flag to one specific person or event. The familiar 13 stripes with 13 stars over a blue field (known as a canton) in the upper left evolved from naval flags, colonial flags, and various flags of protest and rebellion used by colonists as their anger toward England grew in the years before the Revolutionary War.
Among the many American revolutionary flags were the Washington Squadron (a white flag with a green pine tree), the Gadsden flag (a yellow flag with a rattlesnake and the words "Don't tread on me,") and the Sons of Liberty (a flag with nine vertical stripes of red and white) [sources: Teachout, Homer].
The need for a single flag was recognized as tensions and violence flared at the start of the Revolutionary War. The small American Navy needed its own flag so it wouldn't accidentally be fired upon by allies. In 1776, the flag used was the Grand Union Flag, which looks much like an American Flag, with its 13 stripes, but instead of stars on a blue canton, the canton is simply the Union Jack, a replica of Britain's flag [source: Homer].
At some unrecorded point, the founders decided that having the flag of the enemy they were at war with as part of their own flag was a little odd, so the decision to replace the Union Jack in the canton was made. How the 13 stars in a circle on blue was settled on is lost to history, but there were quite a few variants, including a square of stars and stars arcing over the numerals "76." [source: Teachout].
The Continental Congress signed the Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777, but even then the details of the star pattern were in flux, and no one is quite certain where the idea to use stars at all came from. Theories include the influence of Masonic imagery on the Founding Fathers, or that they were adopted from George Washington's family crest, which does have some similarities to the stars and stripes flag.
The 13 stars in a circle design was gradually accepted as the standard, but even in 1779 there was ongoing debate about the flag's final form. Francis Hopkinson, a signer of Declaration of Independence, claimed to have designed the flag and requested payment for his services from Congress, which was denied, as even at the time they recognized that the specific design was the product of many ideas from many people [source: Williams].
There were many flag-makers in Philadelphia at the time of the Betsy Ross legend. It is certain that she made flags, and possible she made the first one. It's even possible she knew or met George Washington, either through her first husband's family connections or through church events (Washington was also an Anglican, or at least went to an Anglican church). However, it's unlikely he directly visited her to have the first flag made. And while Betsy Ross may have sewn the first flag (a worthy accomplishment itself), even if you believe every word of the legend, it's clear that she didn't design the flag beyond, possibly, changing the stars. That is, as well as we can ever know, the truth of the Betsy Ross legend.
But why did the legend become so firmly entrenched in American consciousness in the first place?
How Did the Betsy Ross Legend Grow?
The origin story of the Betsy Ross legend is a lot like the origin story of the American flag. It's a little bit complicated. A lot of different factors went into the creation of the Betsy Ross myth.
- America is a young country. Even in 1870, when America was almost 100 years old and William Canby collected the Ross family stories, the U.S. was brand-new compared to the centuries-spanning histories of other European nations. Excitement about the centennial demanded some history to attach itself to, specific stories or heroic figures that patriotism could be built around. The American public was hungry for a patriotic legend.
- In the 1870s, there was growing interest in women's contributions. The important roles played by women in vital events of history have been overshadowed by a focus on the contributions of men, something we still deal with today. Even in 1870 there was an awareness of this. The Betsy Ross story fit perfectly: Here was a woman creating an enduring and vital symbol of the nation in an era when women were not allowed any political power whatsoever.
- We prefer simple stories over complicated ones. If someone at a party asks you where the first American flag came from, which story do you think will go over better: a long, uncertain tale of multiple flag designs and gradual adoption of a standard, or the clear, iconic story of a patriot who was called upon by the great men of her era and rose to the occasion, stitching together an actual first American flag with her own hands?
- Everybody loves George Washington. This relates back to America's youth and need for its own mythology. By 1870, George Washington had become a legend himself, an emblem of patriotism and liberty. As a result, he was inserted into countless stories about the founding of the nation whether he was truly present or not. His suspect inclusion in the Betsy Ross legend is no surprise, and his presence at the commissioning of the first flag elevates the tale to truly mythological proportions. He was the first president, a war hero, the father of the country. Of course, he was involved in the creation of the first flag.
Today, it's widely recognized that Betsy Ross's story isn't the literal truth. Modern children's books about her explain both the facts about her life and the uncertainties about her legend. But she still holds an important place in American history, helping people understand concepts like patriotism and national mythology, and standing as an example for the many women and men, unnamed and unknown, who never signed the Declaration of Independence but whose hard work and sacrifice built the foundations of the United States.
Author's Note: How Betsy Ross Worked
What struck me most about the Betsy Ross story is the same thing that struck me when researching Pompeii — so much of history is skewed because we only know how rich people lived. The lives of poor or working-class people were rarely preserved. It becomes evident when you see how difficult it is to find information about Ross's life. We only know what we do know because the families themselves kept old letters and other records, and if Ross's legend hadn't risen to prominence relatively soon after her death, those would likely have been lost before anyone bothered to record them.
- Historic Philadelphia. "History of Betsy Ross." (Dec. 8, 2017) http://historicphiladelphia.org/betsy-ross-house/woman/
- Homer, Harlan H. "The American Flag." Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, Vol. 14, 1915.
- Miller, Marla R. "Betsy Ross and the Making of America." Henry Holt and Company, 2010.
- Teachout, Woden. "Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism."
- Williams, Earl P. Jr. "Did Francis Hopkins Design Two Flags?" NAVA News, Oct.-Dec. 2012. (Dec. 6, 2017) http://www.flagguys.com/pdf/NAVANews_2012_no216.pdf