Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Did Betsy Ross Really Sew the First American Flag?

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Besty Ross, born Elizabeth Griscom. was the ninth of 17 children of Samuel and Rebecca Griscom, who were members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). As an apprentice upholsterer, she fell in love with another apprentice, John Ross, who was a member of the Episcopal clergy. As the Quakers disapproved strongly of interdenominational marriages, the couple eloped in 1773 across the Delaware River to New Jersey, where they were married by William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's son.

John opened up an upholster's shop and the young couple lived on the premises. However, their business was badly affected by the American Revolution, with fabric being hard to obtain and business slow. John joined the Pennsylvania militia and was killed in a gunpowder explosion in 1776, after which Betsy took full charge of the upholstering business.

According to what her family members said (after her death) that she had told them, in June 1776, she received a visit from George Washington, George Ross and Robert Morris of the Continental Congress. She had met Washington through their mutual worship at Christ Church (and she had sewn buttons for him previously), and George Ross was John's uncle.

Although there is no record of any such committee, the three men supposedly announced they were a "Committee of Three" (perhaps self-appointed, under the circumstances) and showed her a suggested design that was drawn up by Washington in pencil. The design had six-pointed stars, and Betsy, the family story goes, suggested five-pointed stars instead because she could make a 5-Pointed Star in One Snip.

The flag, was sewn from American grown hemp by Betsy in her parlor. The flag was flown when the Declaration of Independence was read aloud at Independence Hall on July 8, 1776. No contemporary record of this meeting was made. The Betsy Ross Flag had 13 stars and stripes. George Washington said that all stars should be placed in a circle so that no colony would be viewed above another.

The Betsy Ross story is based solely on oral affidavits from her daughter and other relatives, which were made public in 1870 by her grandson, William J. Canby, in a paper read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. No primary sources of the time—letters, journals, diaries, newspaper articles, official records, or business records—have surfaced since 1870 confirming or disproving the story. The only further supporting documentation that Betsy Ross was involved in federal flag design is the Pennsylvania State Navy Board commissioning her for work in making "ships colors & c." in May 1777.

Some historians believe it was Francis Hopkinson and not Betsy Ross who designed the official "first flag" of the United States (13 red and white stripes with 13 stars on a field of blue). Hopkinson was a member of the Continental Congress, a designer of the Great Seal of the State of New Jersey, one of the designers of the Great Seal of the United States (which contains a blue shield with 13 diagonal red and white stripes and 13 five-pointed stars) and a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence.

shown here:
one of my own tiny crafted flags...
pieced with bits of fabric, twine and a twig :)

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for your beautiful comment on my post.
    ciao ciao

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  2. There is always so much to learn on your blog. Thanks again. I hope you have a great Fourth of July!

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  3. I would like to believe that she made it and that George drew it. Great post! Happy 4th to you and yours.

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  4. Actually, it's pretty much accepted in historical circles that Betsy Ross did NOT make the first flag. At the time the Declaration was being signed, Washington was a bit busy being the Commander in Chief of the Continental army -- a post he had held for over a year. In fact, the first flag flown by the continental army (and there is some indication that Washington was at least tangenitally involved in its design) had 13 stripes -- but instead of the field of blue with white stars, had instead, a Union Jack. When it was raised the British cheered -- as they thought the colonists were surrendering.

    The Betsy Ross story is sweet. It is a myth and hey, the United States has its share of myths (don't get me started on Paul Revere). But amongst historians it's seen as a way for her grandchildren (and it was her grandson who brought out the story long after her death) to pump up their own consequence (and sell a few books -- as that's where the story first appeared in a book by the grandson). Yes, she made a flag. But her only known connection to Washington was as an occasional seamstress who sewed buttons on his coats.

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Michele Bilyeu blogs "With Heart and Hands" as she journeys between Douglas, Alaska and Salem, Oregon.