How Betsy Ross Worked

How Did the Betsy Ross Legend Grow?

Betsy Ross flag Betsy Ross flag
Here a small child is wrapped in an American flag during a July 4 parade in New Jersey. Despite the lack of proof surrounding America's first flag, history teaches children that Betsy Ross was the original maker. Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

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.

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  • Historic Philadelphia. "History of Betsy Ross." (Dec. 8, 2017)
  • 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)