One of the most beautiful flags from our nation’s founding era is the famous “Betsy Ross” flag with thirteen red and white stripes and thirteen stars in a field of blue. Called by many the first national flag of the United States, it was created by Betsy Ross in the city of Philadelphia in 1776. It is arguably the most iconic emblem of our nation’s beginning.
Ross’ story was first brought to light by her grandson, William Canby, in 1870, and has been taught to American school children for generations. Lately, it has come under attack as some historians have questioned the accuracy of this legend. However, while it is not an air-tight case, the facts present a compelling one for Ross’ legacy.
Betsy Griscom, born on a New Jersey farm on January 1, 1752, was the eighth of seventeen children. She was married three times and was three times a widow. Betsy’s first marriage was to John Ross, a Pennsylvania militiaman, in 1773, when they eloped in New Jersey.
They settled down in Philadelphia and opened their own upholstery shop. In 1775, while guarding some munitions, John was killed in an explosion. Despite her loss and being only 24 years old, Betsy carried on the business by herself.
She began doing work for the Pennsylvania Navy Board as proven by a 1777 order to Ross for two flags she produced while living on Arch Street, a few blocks from Independence Hall.
As Mrs. Ross later related to her children, in 1776, General Washington, along with George Ross, Betsy’s uncle and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Robert Morris, called on Betsy in her Philadelphia shop with a task in mind.
Interestingly, General Washington was already familiar with Betsy as they attended the same church and she had previously done some work for him. The three gentlemen and Mrs. Ross discussed creating a new flag for the emerging nation and the outcome of that visit was the now famous Betsy Ross flag.
It consisted of thirteen stripes representing the original thirteen colonies (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island) with thirteen stars in a field of blue. Importantly, the stars were placed in a circle so no state would be viewed as superior to the others. The blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice. The red denotes hardiness and valor, while the white symbolizes purity and innocence.
So did Betsy Ross create our nation’s first flag? It is impossible to state with certainty. What we do have is a significant amount of evidence that makes Ross’ legacy plausible, more so than any other story related to our first flag. What we lack is written proof and, because we live in a time when everything is recorded, there are skeptics who question her story. One must keep in mind we are talking about June 1776, a simpler time than today. It is easy to imagine Washington and members of Congress casually meeting with a seamstress they already knew who lived just down the street to discuss a new flag for the country. The fact no one noted the meeting is not surprising given we were only a month away from declaring our independence from England. These men had more pressing matters on their mind.
While not conclusive, what we do know is extremely compelling. It seems her story should continue to be the iconic legacy it has been for the last 150 years.
WHY IT MATTERS So why should Betsy Ross and the flag she created matter to us today? Betsy Ross represents what most patriots were in 1776, not leaders of armies or famous statesmen, but rather simple, hard-working people who wanted their country to be free.
She was a successful entrepreneur from humble beginnings who sewed flags for her country and whose husband died in its defense. She is a reminder of what every day Americans did to give us our independence from England.
Moreover, the Betsy Ross flag represents a time when our nation was in its purest form. A time when our people were united in a common cause against a common foe.
If our nation needs a symbol of that earlier day as an inspiration of what we can and ought to be as a country, the Betsy Ross flag would be a great choice.
SUGGESTED READING “Betsy Ross and the Making of America” is an excellent book by Marla Miller on Betsy Ross and everyday life in 1770’s America. It provides a portrait of Ross’ life as a businesswoman and patriot.
PLACES TO VISIT Betsy Ross’ home is in downtown Philadelphia. It has been beautifully restored to its original look and is one of the most popular attractions in the city. Visitors get a flavor of Revolutionary Philadelphia and this talented lady.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is a West Point alumnus and lives on Ford Plantation. He has a website, americanacorner.com, where you can learn more.