How Betsy Ross Worked

The Legend of Betsy Ross and the American Flag

Betsy Ross flag Betsy Ross flag
There is absolutely no evidence to support the story that Betsy Ross designed and created the first American flag. Hulton Archive/Getty Image

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.