Did Betsy Ross really make the first American flag?

In this Henry Mosler painting, Betsy Ross and her sewing circle piece together the first American flag in Philadelphia.
Lambert/Getty Images

If you grew up in the United States, chances are you've heard the story of Betsy Ross and the first American flag. It's a charming tale that's won its place in many hearts and imaginations, just like other stories about the nation's founding. However, much as we might want to believe it, some historians have come to question the historical accuracy of the Betsy Ross flag story. Before we discuss the controversy, let's go over the famous yarn for those who haven't heard it or who are a little fuzzy on their grade-school history.

Legend has it that one day in 1776, George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross (a relative of Betsy's) called on Mrs. Ross, an upholsterer and seamstress. The men identified themselves as a congressional committee and asked for her help sewing a flag. Washington reached into his coat pocket and took out a folded paper with a crude sketch of his vision for the flag. The design had 13 red and white stripes as well as 13 stars (each representing the 13 colonies and soon-to-be states). When asked if she could do it, Ross famously replied, "I do not know, but I will try" [source: Betsy Ross House]. Supposedly, Ross suggested one important alteration to Washington's design: Instead of six-pointed stars, she recommended five-pointed ones. The men agreed, and she set to work sewing the first American flag.

An easily recognizable flag was a practical necessity for the new nation -- especially in battle when communication was slow and difficult. At the outset of the conflict with Britain, the colonies had been using the Union Jack (the British flag) within the design of their own flag. This prompted confusion among British troops when colonists flew their flag outside Boston [source: Crews]. Beyond these practicalities, colonists fighting for independence were ready to distance themselves from their British oppressors. So did Betsy Ross, the humble seamstress from Philadelphia, have a hand in sewing and designing the all-important flag and symbol for the fledgling United States?

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.

The Francis Hopkinson Flag Story

Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, might be the person who really deserves props for designing the American flag.
Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, might be the person who really deserves props for designing the American flag.
Stock Montage/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although he's not as famous in American lore as Betsy Ross, Francis Hopkinson was no inconsequential figure. He was a representative of New Jersey in the Continental Congress and was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Later, he pushed for the ratification of the Constitution in Pennsylvania and wrote several influential articles that helped accomplish this. Hopkinson was a real Renaissance man: In addition to being a politician, he was a lawyer, musician and poet. And on top of all that, he also happened to dabble in artistic design.

Hopkinson contributed to the design of numerous important symbols and seals for the United States in the nation's infancy. Among them are the seal of New Jersey, the Continental Board of Admiralty seal, the seal of the American Philosophical Society, the Treasury seal and even the Great Seal of the United States. And although Hopkinson is an acknowledged designer of these things, it's possible he hasn't gotten credit for the most notable of his designs -- the American flag.

In 1780, the esteemed Hopkinson wrote a letter to the Board of Admiralty in which he claimed he designed the American flag. As compensation, he requested a quarter cask of the public wine. The board forwarded this letter to Congress. A few weeks later, Hopkinson sent a new request to the Board of the Treasury, asking for 2,700 pounds ($3,985) for designing the "Naval flag of the United States" instead; he did not mention the American flag. The Treasury Board rejected Hopkinson's request, saying the flag was a collaborative effort and that Hopkinson was "not the only person" who contributed to the design [source: Leepson].

The flags Hopkinson designed have never been found. However, some researchers believe that the naval flag he designed had seven red stripes and six white ones, while the American flag he designed showed the opposite: seven white strips and six red ones. They base this on the designs that Hopkinson created for the Great Seal of the U.S. and the Continental Board of Admiralty seal [source: Williams].

Though Hopkinson's request for payment was ultimately denied, the response he got at least recognized that he did have a hand in the design. While some other names have been bandied about, Hopkinson's case for designer of the original American flag appears to be the strongest.

Last editorial update on Dec 14, 2018 05:02:32 pm.

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Sources

  • "Hopkinson, Francis." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
  • Crews, Ed. "The Truth About Betsy Ross." Colonial Williamsburg Journal. Summer 2008. http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Summer08/betsy.cfm
  • Leepson, Marc. Nelson DeMille. "Flag: An American Biography." Macmillan, 2006. (April 27, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=qqjzyyZjYTEC
  • The Betsy Ross House. "The Flag." The Betsy Ross House. (April 27, 2009) http://www.betsyrosshouse.org/hist_flag/