Sunday, July 01, 2007

Betsy Ross

When I think of the American Flag, I think back to Betsy Ross and wonder: Did she really make the first American flag? Most contemporary historians doubt the popular legend of Betsy Ross sewing the original stars and stripes. However, it is so compelling that when President Woodrow Wilson was asked his opinion of the story, he replied, “Would that it were true!”

Here’s what we do know about Betsy Ross and the American flag. Betsy was born Elizabeth Griscom in 1752. She married John Ross, a Philadelphia upholsterer, and worked as a seamstress. When John Ross was killed in a munitions explosion in 1776, Betsy kept the upholstery shop going. She claimed that George Washington was one of her customers.

Nearly one hundred years later, in 1870, William J. Canby, one of Betsy’s grandsons, told of the supposed making of the first American flag at a meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He said that, when he was eleven-years-old, Betsy Ross herself told it to him shortly before she died. According to Canby:

George Washington was a frequent visitor to the home of Mrs. Ross before receiving command of the army. She embroidered his shirt ruffles and did other things for him. Therefore, Washington knew her skill with a needle. As the General of the Continental Army, George Washington appeared on her doorstep around the first of June, 1776 with two representatives of Congress, George Ross and Robert Morris. They asked her to make a flag according to a rough drawing that they carried with them.

General Washington suggested 13 stars and 13 stripes. His version of the stars had six points. Betsy showed him how to make a beautiful five pointed star by folding a piece of paper and taking only one snip. Washington was very impressed, so the design was changed to five pointed stars instead of six. Betsy placed her stars in a circle and the stars and stripes design was adopted by Congress on June 14, 1777.

The painting below of Betsy Ross sewing the first flag was done by Charles H. Weisgerber. First displayed at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, it depicts the meeting of the fabled flag committee with Betsy Ross. Entitled “Birth of Our Nations Flag,” it is actually a composite portrait made up from pictures of Betsy’s granddaughters and other descendants. This painting was included in a book written by Canby’s brother, George Canby and nephew Lloyd Balderson in 1909 to bolster the claims made by Betsy’s grandson that she had made the first American flag. It was also reproduced in school history textbooks and used to make money in order to purchase the Betsy Ross house in Philadelphia.

Birth of Our Nations Flag

Historians have continually searched government records in order to prove Canby's account is true but so far they have been unable to find irrefutable evidence to support the popular legend. However, interestingly enough, they have been able to find some evidence that indicates Betsy Ross did make flags for the Pennsylvania State ships. In the minutes of the State Navy Board of Pennsylvania, there is an entry for May 29, 1777 that reads as following: “An order on William Webb to Elizabeth Ross for fourteen pounds twelve shillings, and two pence, for making ship’s colors, &c, put into Richards store.” Nevertheless, despite this apparent lack of historical evidence, descendants of Betsy Ross state that she was a truthful woman and had no reason to make up fanciful stories.

Another interesting tale related to this flag making legend is that after the Continental Congress Committee’s had visited Betsy Ross’s shop, a fellow church member saw the star that Betsy had cut out for them and asked to keep it. In 1925, the family safe of this church member was opened and inside was a five pointed star! It is now on exhibit at the Free Quaker Meeting House in Philadelphia.

A fair portion of historians believe that it was Francis Hopkinson, not Betsy Ross, who designed the official “first flag” of the United Sates. Hopkinson was a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. But, regardless of the truth of the Betsy Ross Legend, the story told by her grandson is quite enchanting.

If you would like to learn how to make a five-pointed star with just one snip of the scissors, follow this link HERE. If you're inspired to make your own patriotic project for the summer, click HERE.


gerri michaels said...

Hi Grandma Rachel- Love your new blog and still think you have the best quilt shop in Oregon. Your old friend, Gerri

Carol Wood said...

I love the story as you present it. Sounds like a pretty good case, given that many other stories and legends are believed by many people about every subject under the sun. I think I'll just go with it and enjoy it as I learned it as a school child.

Carol in Amity

Anonymous said...

i'm doing a biography on Betsy Ross, and your information really helped me a lot! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

i am doing a book report on her and you helped me a lot