There is a fine line between history and legend because there is usually a granule or two of truth within the lore. Not to mention, history is only fact in the eyes of the person who wrote it. Over 240 years ago, we know a woman named Betsy Ross lived in colonial Pennsylvania. Did she stitch the first American flag? Here is what legend and history tell us:
Newly widowed seamstress Betsy Ross was visited by General George Washington in the summer of 1776 regarding the design for the new nation’s flag, for every sovereign nation had a standard, and the General was preparing for the United States of America to become a reality. Washington explained the layout with six-pointed stars, a design that was created and approved by the Continental Congress.
Ross, with her years of sewing and design expertise, suggested that using five-pointed stars would be much more efficient. Unlike the six-pointed version, the five pointed star can be folded and cut with a single snip of the scissors. Of course there are critics who say differently, but, by and large, Betsy Ross is known as the creator of the first American flag.
Born on January 1, 1752 as Elizabeth Griscom in Philadelphia, Betsy Ross honed her skills as a young girl in the art of sewing. Her family was comprised of Quakers, and Ross was an apprentice to an upholsterer, where she made chair covers, mattresses, and window blinds.
While working for the upholsterer, she grew close to another apprentice, John Ross. Unlike Ross, he was not a Quaker. They fell in love and ran away together to elope. Betsy became an outcast from her devout family and community.
Since they were on their own with the same skills, the couple decided to open their own upholstery business. However, on the heels of opening their business, the Revolutionary War was just beginning to ramp up, and John joined the Pennsylvania Militia. Sadly, he was killed in January of ‘76 in an ammunition explosion accident on the Philadelphia waterfront, leaving Betsy a widower.
Without any family to turn to, it is no surprise that she married again in June of ‘77, this time to Captain Joseph Ashburn. Once again, fate didn’t work out for Ross, and her second husband was captured by the British and thrown into Old Mill Prison, where he died in March of 1782. At the ripe old age of thirty, Betsy became a war-time widow twice.
John Claypoole, an old friend of the Ross family delivered the sad news to Betsy, as he had been imprisoned with Ashburn at Old Mill. Love sprouted between them—whether out of necessity or desire, no one knows. They married and lived a happy, good life up until John’s natural death in 1817. Betsy went on to live until she was 84 years old, passing away on January 30, 1836.
The only proof that Betsy Ross created the first American flag was the story she passed on to her children and grandchildren. At the time the flag was created, it was not an honored and treasured relic as it is today. Two hundred and forty plus years of history have given more meaning and emotion to the emblem of our nation than it had in the infancy of our republic. Now, there are many documentations of the flag, including special commemorative flags in museums around the country.
A similar situation occurred with the Declaration of Independence, as it was not signed on July 4th—but even some the of signers confused the date, leaving a muddled history. If our nation were born today, certainly there would be an accurate documentation, complete with social media announcements and our very own hashtags!
It was actually Betsy’s grandson William Canby who first brought the story to light. In March of 1870, he delivered a paper to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in which he outlined his beloved grandmother’s incredible contribution to our nation’s history. Critics cast doubt on his story, as he was only 11 when Betsy died, and more than likely he confused the facts of the story.
In an effort to allay the doubts, Betsy’s children signed sworn affidavits citing the story Canby told was in fact truth, as they had the same recollection of events.
Unfortunately, aside from Betsy’s account, there were no other first-person corroborating stories, though we know for certain that all of the men involved in the story were known to Mrs. Ross.
Not only were Congressman Robert Morris and General George Washington members of the Congregation of Christ Church, along with Betsy, but Washington had hired her before for other sewing jobs. The fact that he would ask her to complete this monumental task would not be out of the ordinary because, remember, the flag was not the revered standard back then as it is today.
After close examination of all sides of the legend surrounding the creation of the first American flag, there isn’t any fact worthy of refuting Betsy Ross’ claim. We celebrate the woman who sacrificed so much for our nation—losing two of her loves in one war—on her birthday January 1st.