Betsy Ross (January 1, 1752 – January 30, 1836), of Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, has been widely credited with making the first American
The Birth of Old Glory, by
Edward Percy Moran, depicting the presention by Betsy Ross of
the first American flag to George Washington
1752 - 1836
The Magazine of American History with Notes and
Queries By Martha Joanna Lamb Compiled by William Abbatt Published by A.
S. Barnes, 1879
THE HISTORY OF THE FIRST UNITED States Flag
And The Patriotism Of Betsy Ross, The Immortal Heroine That OrigInated The First
Flag Of The Union. Dedicated to the Ladies of the United States. By Col. J.
Franklin Reigart. 8vo, pp. 25. Harrisburg, Penn., 1878.
Some years since William J. Canby, the grandson of Mrs. John (Betsy) Ross of
Philadelphia, read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania a paper on the
Centennial Anniversary of the American Flag, in which he claimed that his
grandmother was the first maker of the Stars and Stripes. She lived in Arch
street, and was for many years engaged in the business of flag making.
In this monograph Col. Reigart asserts that her bright colored tapestry,
ornamental handiwork and curtains in primary colors attracted the notice of the
members of Congress, and that at the request of Dr. Franklin, Mr. Robert Morris
and Col. George Ross, her brother-in-law, she designed and made the first flag
of the United States, which was approved and adopted by the committee and
Congress. In addition to this, Betsy Ross first gave a name to our youthful
country by marking on her flags the " United States of America."
In the paper we find no authority for these statements, nor yet any confirmation
in the histories of the Flag by Preble and Hamilton. Nevertheless Col. Reigart
insists that the "statue" of Betsy, "surrounded by a group of her daughters and
nieces, cutting, sewing and making the Star- Spangled Banners, must soon grace
the Capitol of our nation, and the patriotic ladies of America will design,
erect and pay for it. To the account are appended sundry patriotic songs and
appeals said to have been written and circulated by Mrs. Ross during the
revolution from her shop in Philadelphia. On the cover of the pamphlet is a
colored fac-simileof the first flag, and within a portrait of "Mrs. Betsy Ross
the Author," with scissors and bunting, busy at her work.
The Dramatic Story of Old Glory
By Samuel Abbott
BEFORE we emerge from the field of speculation as to the origin
of the Stars and Stripes, we must get through the thicket of the Betsy Ross
problem. This last difficulty is not an easy one to face, for the tradition of
the making of our first complete national Flag in old Arch Street, Philadelphia,
has become almost a fetish with good Americans. There are countless thousands of
men and women in the United States who accept an historical narrative,
especially if colored with a hue of romance, without a moment's investigation
into its merits as truth. The Betsy Ross story, first given to the public in
1870, almost a century after the event it is supposed to prove, has gone into
book after book as solid truth. Like the legend of the boy George Washington and
his hatchet, it is neat but suspicious.
Recently a perfectly sane man came into our office and, with the air of one who
had a real message to unfold, told us that near his home in a city in Western
Massachusetts lived a niece of Betsy Ross. The estimable woman, gifted with a
keen memory, had a fund of anecdotes of the life of the real Betsy, and was
accepted by her neighbors as a bona fide link with a wonderful Past. Betsy Ross
was born in 1752, one hundred and sixty-seven years ago. We handed our visitor a
scrap of paper, on which was the result of a little example in subtraction in
terms of years. "How old would your niece of Betsy Ross have to be, to have
memories of the living Betsy Ross?" we inquired. He never had thought of that.
Like many others, he had accepted as fact what a few minutes of analytical
thought would have shown to be an impossibility.
We are not on the verge of an effort to demolish the story of Betsy Ross and the
making of the first Stars and Stripes. The weight of the evidence appears to be
in favor of this tradition of the making of the original Old Glory. Were it not
for the injudicious claims of certain members of the Ross family, claims utterly
unnecessary and even dangerous to the life of an episode accepted as fact,
though fragile, we should be inclined to set the whole matter down in this book
verbatim, in accord with the evidence as presented by counsel for the defense.
The story, in brief, is as follows: According to at least one historian, Betsy
Ross made State colors for ships before the Flag-Resolution of Congress, of June
14, 1777, determined the Stars and Stripes as the national standard. She was
engaged in flag-making for the Government after that date, and her daughter,
Mrs. Clarissa Wilson, to whom we owe much of the accepted tradition, succeeded
her in business and supplied arsenals, navy yards and the mercantile marine with
flags for years.
The main elements of the story are in the fragments we now present. Betsy Ross
was the widow of John Ross who died from the effects of injuries received while
guarding cannon balls and military stores which had been made by his uncle,
George Ross, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. She had embroidered
shirt ruffles for Washington in the days before his appointment as
Commander-in-Chief of the Army, for she was famous for her work with the needle.
It was natural that Washington, with her uncle, George Ross, and Robert Morris
should go to her for the making of a sample flag. These three men are supposed
to have formed the committee, authorized by Congress or self-appointed, to
"design a suitable flag for the nation."
It is a pretty picture. We can imagine the three men bowing graciously to the
young widow, then in her twenty-sixth year, and, after being seated, presenting,
in the hands of Washington, a rough drawing of the proposed flag. The design
shows stars with six points, to which Mistress Betsy objects. She folds a piece
of paper and produces, with clips of her scissors, a perfect five-pointed star.
Washington redraws the sketch, and the committee unanimously votes to give her
the commission to make the first true American Flag.
As George Washington was not in Philadelphia at any time during the first six
months of 1777, it is a real problem to fit him into this picture. We are to
find out, at once, how one man solves this problem by getting a Stars and
Stripes made by Betsy Ross at some time in 1776, and thus making the great
George a possible actor in the little scene.
The claims of Mr. William J. Canby, a grandson of Betsy Ross, assert that she
made flags of the Stars and Stripes pattern as early as June, 1776, when
Washington chanced to be in Philadelphia, and that they were in common use soon
after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Mr. Canby was eleven years old
when Betsy Ross died in 1836, yet he waited until 1857 before crystallizing in
writing her relations of reminiscences of events associated with the Flag. That
gap of twenty-one years before the committal of historical data to the stern
rigidity of printed words, injures the value of Mr. Canby's interesting
contribution to the literature of the Flag.
Another argument against the possibility of the Stars and Stripes being in use
as early as June, 1776, is found in the words of John Paul Jones, "The flag and
I are twins," uttered when he was told that his appointment to the command of
the Ranger was of the same date as the Resolution in Congress, of June 14, 1777,
that adopted the Stars and Stripes as the national emblem. Paul Jones loathed
the Rattlesnake Flag, frequently displayed on ships of our little navy of
1776-77, and was precisely the man to seize upon and run to a masthead such a
glorious emblem as Old Glory, were it in existence prior to June, 1777. You may
scrutinize all the records of the Revolution, Congressional files, daily papers,
prints, documents in European museums and libraries; you will not find a scrap
of evidence the size of a ten-cent piece in support of the Canby theory. This
claim is a distinct drag on the progress of the Betsy Ross legend, for it
stresses an argument based on hearsay, oral transmission, when the truth we seek
is that lodged in the written or printed memorials of the period.
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the following Resolution:
Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States of America be thirteen
stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a
blue field, representing a New Constellation.
With that date and that Resolution, began the history of the Stars and Stripes
as a living symbol of Nationality. There will be a few events associated with
the early records of the Flag, as we are to give them, that will require careful
attention, as they are not presented clearly in other histories of the Flag, or
have been neglected. But we are out of the period of extreme uncertainty that
prevailed during the years of the Continental standards of 1775 and 1776.
Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom to parents Samuel and Rebecca in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 1, 1752, the eighth of 17 children.
She "grew up in a household where the plain dress and strict discipline of the
Society of Friends dominated her life."
She learned to sew from her great-aunt Sarah Griscom.
After she finished her schooling at a Quaker public school, her father
apprenticed her to an upholsterer named William Webster.
At this job, she fell in love with fellow apprentice John Ross, son of an
assistant rector Aeneas Ross (Sarah Leach) at (Episcopal)
Christ Church.They married and had two children.
As interdenominational marriages typically led to being read out of their
Quaker meeting, the couple eloped in 1773 when she was 21, and married at Hugg's
Tavern in Gloucester, New Jersey. The marriage caused a split from her family
and meant her expulsion from the Quaker congregation. The young couple soon
started their own upholstery business and joined Christ Church.
The Revolutionary War
The Rosses were financially stressed by the outbreak of the
American Revolutionary War. The fabrics they depended on grew scarce, and
business slowed considerably. John joined the Pennsylvania
militia and was killed in January 1776 when ammunition in a storehouse he
was guarding exploded.
After her first husband's death, Betsy Ross joined the "Fighting Quakers"
which, unlike traditional Quakers, supported the war effort. In June 1777, she
married sea captain Joseph Ashburn at
Old Swedes' Church in Philadelphia. British soldiers forcibly occupied their
house when they controlled the city in 1777. Following the
Battle of Germantown, she nursed both American and British soldiers.
Betsy Ross is best remembered, however, as a flag maker during the
Revolution. Family oral history, supported only by 19th century affidavits,
recounts the widowed Ross meeting with
George Ross, and
Robert Morris at her upholstery business in Philadelphia, a meeting said to
have resulted in the sewing of the first U.S.
"stars and stripes" flag.
According to the story, it was at this meeting, to "silence the men's protests
that these new
five-pointed stars would be unfamiliar and difficult for seamstresses to
make, she folded a piece of paper, made a single scissor snip, and revealed a
perfect five-pointed star."
Evidence that Ross did in fact make flags for the government includes a
receipt for her making "ship's colours" for the Pennsylvania Navy in May 1777,
as well as a folded star pattern with her name found in a Philadelphia Quaker
Whether or not Ross made the "first" stars and stripes has never been proven,
however. According to the family legend, many women were making flags when Betsy
received her first order.
Francis Hopkinson also took credit for the design of the stars and stripes,
which was partially acknowledged by Congress.
In May 1783, Ross married John Claypoole, an old friend who had told her of
Ashburn's death in a British prison where he and Ashburn had been confined. The
couple had five daughters together. He died in 1817 after twenty years of ill
health. She continued working in her upholstery business, including making flags
for the United States of America, until 1827.
After her retirement, she moved in with her married daughter, Susannah
Satterthwaite, who continued to operate the business. Ross died in Philadelphia
on January 30, 1836, at age 84.
Although it is one of the most visited tourist sites in Philadelphia,
the claim that Ross once lived at the
Betsy Ross House is a matter of dispute.
Ross's body was first buried at the Free Quaker burial ground on South 5th
Street. Twenty years later, her remains were exhumed and reburied in the
Mt. Moriah Cemetery in the
Cobbs Creek Park section of Philadelphia. In preparation for the
United States Bicentennial, the city ordered the remains moved to the
courtyard of the
Betsy Ross House in 1975; however, workers found no remains under her
tombstone. Bones found elsewhere in the family plot were deemed to be hers and
were re-interred in the current grave visited by tourists at the Betsy Ross
Research conducted by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History
notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the first American flag for General
George Washington entered into the American conscious about the time of the 1876
In 1870 Ross's grandson, William J. Canby, presented a paper to the Historical
Society of Pennsylvania in which he claimed that his grandmother had "made
with her hands the first flag" of the United States. Canby said he first
obtained this information from his aunt Clarissa Wilson in 1857, twenty years
after Betsy Ross's death. The historic episode supposedly occurred in late May
or early June 1776, a year before Congress passed the Flag Act.
In their 2008 book The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American
Icon, the Smithsonian experts point out that Canby's romantic tale appealed
to Americans eager for stories about the Revolution and its heroes and heroines.
Betsy Ross was promoted as a patriotic role model for young girls and a symbol
of women's contributions to American history.
This line of enquiry is further explored by award-winning historian Laurel
Thatcher Ulrich in a 2007 article "How Betsy Ross Became Famous: Oral Tradition,
Nationalism, and the Invention of History."
Have you ever thought about how the American flag
was made. Well, in this essay I will tell you who and three other important
things that the maker of this peace symbol did. Her name was Betsy Ross, she was
the seamstress and designer of the first American flag. How cool is that? As for
her early life, Betsy was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as Elizabeth
Griscom. She had a big family. Betsy was the eighth child of seventeen, born to
Samuel and Rebecca. Her family was Quakers, a religious group that believed in
living in a simple, peaceful way.
Her first achievement was attending school. Most
people did not attend school. In school she learned reading, writing,
arithmetic, geography, and history. During her school hours they would preform a
four-hour task each day. Betsy used this time to sew. She enjoyed creating
quilts and sampler with complicated designs. Her needlework was the most
beautiful in Philadelphia and she won many prizes for it.
Her second achievement was setting up a small
business with her spouse John Ross. They were married in 1773. They worked long
hours to make their business succeed. In 1776 John died, Betsy took over his
In that same year according to tradition, General
George Washington, financier Robert Morris and Colonel George Ross, her
husband's late uncle, called on Ross and ask her to design and make the flag.
George Washington did this because he wanted the colonies to have a symbol of
their independence. This is the most important thin she ever did.
After her first spouse she married two more times.
With these spouses she had five children. Clarissa, Susannah, Rachel, Jane, and
Harriet, who died as a baby. Betsy died in 1836. Her children kept this story
alive so people would know how important their mother really was. So if anyone
ever asks you who made the American flag you can proudly say Elizabeth Griscom
Wallner, Alexandra. Betsy Ross.
1st Ed. United States of America:
Wallner, Alexandra, 1994
Microsoft (R) Encarta (R) '96 Encyclopedia.
1993-1995 Microsoft Corporation.
(C) Funk & Wagnalls Corporation
Young, Joesph. The First American flag.
1st Ed. Chicago, Ill.: John L. Elliot, 1995
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