How Betsy Ross Worked

The Life of Betsy Ross

Betsy Ross Betsy Ross
Living history reenactments of Betsy Ross making the first American flag, like this one in Philadelphia, have helped further solidify her legend as the flag's designer. Visions of America/UIG/Getty Images

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.