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Did Betsy Ross Make the First American Flag?

April 28, 2020

By Wendy Stanley 

If you ask most Americans who Betsy Ross was, they will tell you she made the first American flag at the time of the American revolutionary war. Most visitors to historic Philadelphia head enthusiastically to her family home at 239 Arch Street, second only to the top tourist destination, Independence Mall, which houses the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Tourists see the Betsy Ross House as a symbol of American liberty and a direct link to the birth of the new nation. The challenge is this: Today there is no direct evidence that Betsy Ross herself made the first accepted prototype of the American flag. She may have. Or she may not have. Or she may have been part of a group of women flag makers that were working together. So how did Mrs. Ross come to hold this iconic role almost 250 years after the Declaration of Independence was inked?

My research peeled back the years to uncover what we can confirm as fact and what may be fiction.[Story continued by clicking link below.]


Birth of Our Nation's Flag: Charles H. Weisgerber, 1893
Source: Library of Congress 2004669130

 

       

Courtyard to the entrance to The Betsy Ross House Museum 
Philadelphia 2020
Author photo

Betsy Ross was the sixth girl born to Samuel and Rebecca Griscom. The Griscoms had a long history in the new world, Samuel’s great-grandfather arrived in 1680 and made his way to Philadelphia as a prosperous carpenter. By the time Betsy was born in Philadelphia on January 1, 1752, many generations of Griscoms had been in Philadelphia for decades before her. Betsy’s parents would go on to have 17 or 18 children in total. Betsy’s father purchased the property at 239 Arch Street and substantially enlarged the house and changed its footprint for his (by then) eight children and still-growing family. Betsy and her siblings moved in when she was twelve years old in 1764, although the front section of the house dates from 1740.

 

The Betsy Ross House February 12, 2020
239 Arch Street, Philadelphia
Author photo 

Legend has it that when Betsy was fifteen she wandered down the street to an upholsterer’s shop where one of her older sisters was working. She offered to help out with some complicated needlework and the shop owner hired her. Betsy worked there for five or six years before marrying a fellow shop worker, John Ross, in November 1773. As newlyweds, together they set up their own upholstery shop from their rented home.

The Rosses quickly became part of the growing resistance movement against British rule. John was a Mason, actively encouraging the rebellion. Unfortunately, the marriage was short lived and childless, with John dying in January 1776, the same month that Thomas Paine anonymously published Common Sense, which urged separation from Britain. Betsy had just turned 24 and was a new widow. It had been a tense few years in Philadelphia. As a teenager, Betsy would have seen the colonists’ enraged reaction to the Stamp Act in 1765, then its subsequent repeal and the reaction to the Townshend Acts and Tea Act that followed. She would have read the newspaper accounts of tea dumped in protest into Boston harbor under the cover of darkness the month after she got married. She would have witnessed the tense arrival of fifty-six men from twelve colonies heading to Carpenters’ Hall for the First Continental Congress in September 1774. When sessions broke for the day, the men surely would have been dining in taverns and homes across the city before retiring to their respective inns and the homes of friends. The city was buzzing about what to do about the long arm of stifling British rule and its penchant for arbitrary taxation (and in Boston’s case, punishment). All eyes were focused on the lockdown in Massachusetts since the King in retaliation had closed the port at the beginning of June. And Betsy most certainly lived through the following months of anxiety and chaos while Philadelphia became the seat of the rebel government and a driving force in the resistance.

Betsy voluntarily prepared musket cartridges for the American Revolution in 1777
Display, The Betsy Ross House, Philadelphia
Author photo taken 2/12/2020

After John’s death, Betsy continued working as an upholsterer on her own. (She would go on to remarry twice more, eventually having seven children.) Betsy’s daughter, Rachel Claypoole Jones Fletcher, repeatedly claimed in the 19th century that a meeting had taken place in May or June 1776 when Betsy’s workshop was visited by General George Washington, George Ross and Robert Morris. The story says that Betsy was shown a rough sketch for the American flag and made suggestions for improvement, such as recommending that it be rectangular and not square, and that the stars be five-pointed and not six-pointed, as they would be easier to construct and sew. Legend has it that her design stuck and the rest is history. The problem however, is that there is no evidence of this meeting or a paper trail for an order for a flag from a young Philadelphia upholsterer by the name of Ross. Was it a family’s wishful thinking? In 1870 Betsy’s grandson, William Canby, made a presentation to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania outlining the meeting between his grandmother and the Washington trio. This meeting was further memorialized in an 1893 painting by Henry Weisgerber showing the meeting between Betsy and her visitors. (The painting now resides at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.)

What then, do we know as fact?

  • George Ross was a colonel and the uncle of Betsy’s deceased husband, making the connection plausible. It’s reasonable to imagine that Colonel Ross would wish to bring business to his nephew’s widow.
  • George and Martha Washington’s pew at Christ Church (when they were in town and attended church) was close to where Betsy sat in her pew. They knew the young couple and had ordered upholstered goods from them. https://www.christchurchphila.org/history/
  • Mount Vernon has proof that George Washington purchased a fully trimmed bed from John and Betsy Ross in 1774. Washington’s accounting book records a payment for “three sets of bedhangings to Mr. Ross the upholsterer” in Philadelphia on September 23, 1774. https://www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/the-mansion/the-chintz-room/furnishings/
  • We know that Washington was in Philadelphia from May 23 to June 5, 1776 and retrieved military items previously ordered, such as the tents he ordered from upholsterer Plunket Fleeson in November 1775 and picked up in May 1776. (Miller: Betsy Ross and the Making of America, Henry Holt & Co., New York 2010 p 170.)
  • Evidence does firmly place Ross as a known flag maker in the American revolution: Documents remain showing that the Pennsylvania Navy board paid Betsy Ross fourteen pounds and change for making “ship’s colours” on May 29, 1777.

Skeptics point out the other side of the argument: William Canby was only 11 when his grandmother died and his recollections would be dubious at best. The painter, Weisgerber, walked past the old Griscom house on Arch Street and saw the plaque regarding Betsy and the first flag, reinterpreting history from his imagination. Perhaps most problematic: why isn’t there a record of Washington’s visit and flag order from Betsy?

    Bedroom in Betsy Ross House showing example of first flag; Author photo 2/12/2020

Betsy Ross may well have known the women in town that were experienced flag makers, and perhaps they worked together, or maybe one of the others made the flag. In Philadelphia in the 1770s there were dozens of upholsterers listed in tax records, many of them women.

Historical interpreter summoning Betsy Ross
Betsy Ross House, 2/12/20
Author Photo

In the end, I’m not sure it matters if Betsy Ross fine-tuned and sewed the design for the first American flag or not, for she sewed flags and pennants for the United States for some fifty years. She was committed to the cause of America. In addition to the ship’s colors she provided to the American Navy board in 1777, Betsy Ross was a supplier of flags for the War of 1812 and more, including, according to history.com, the “six 18-by-24-foot garrison flags to be sent to New Orleans” as well as 27 flags she made for the Indian Department. https://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/betsy-ross

Tourists to historic Philadelphia who visit the Griscom family home (the Betsy Ross House) are rewarded by seeing Betsy’s home of at least ten years, a jewel of a house that dates from 1740 and has been a treasure in Philadelphia’s history for almost three hundred years. It’s entirely probable, and possible, that Betsy Ross did make the first American flag. Yet even if she did not, Betsy Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole was a talented upholsterer and seamstress who provided flags to the U.S. government in varying degrees for many decades of her life. It's time more women stepped out of the shadows and took their place at the table of history.

  Museum Gift Shop

The Betsy Ross House outsources their gift shop to an outside retail company to stock and manage.