Monday, January 28, 2008

Did Betsy Ross Design the First Flag?

The contributions of women during the American Revolution (and in virtually every other era of history) have often been overlooked or obscured thanks in part to the chauvinistic trends of early historiography. Despite such trends, the occasional feminine hero has emerged from this hazy background to claim her rightful place alongside other fellow revolutionaries. Women like Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison and "Molly Pitcher" are remembered in countless paintings, monuments, and history books for their contributions to the "cause of liberty."

Arguably one of the most popular female figures of the American Revolution is Betsy Ross. In fact, the Betsy Ross House and Memorial in Philadelphia is one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Philadelphia. We of course remember Ross as the original designer and creator of the first American flag in 1776. In fact, the first American flag is rarely referred to as the "Flag of '76" but is instead known as the "Betsy Ross Flag."

But just how true is the history of the Betsy Ross story?

As the legend states, Betsy Ross, who had recently lost her first husband in the war, received a visit from none other than General George Washington, who admonished Ross to create a banner of "thirteen stripes and thirteen stars." The stars were to be in a circular pattern, to symbolize the fact that, "no colony would be viewed above another." The legend goes on to state that as soon as George Washington's boots stepped out her front door, Betsy Ross set about making the first American flag.

Case closed, right?

Not so fast. Unfortunately there exists little to no primary sources to prove or dispute the Betsy Ross story. In fact, the only evidence we have to defend the Betsy Ross story comes from Ross's grandson, William Canby. Ross supposedly related her story to Canby (who was eleven at the time) while on her deathbed. Canby then waited another 30 years before publicly announcing the story in a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (click here to read a copy of Canby's paper). By then, roughly 100 years had passed since the alleged visit between General Washington and Betsy Ross.

Though the story cannot be 100% confirmed, it is important to remember that it also cannot be rejected. To be certain, Betsy Ross and her first husband had established a semi-successful upholstery business in Philadelphia. If George Washington had commissioned Ross to make the flag, perhaps he learned of her business while attending the Continental Congress. Skeptics argue that there is little likelihood that Washington would have visited Ross in 1776, due to the fact that he was extraordinarily busy with managing the Army.

Despite the controversy, Betsy Ross (and the flag she allegedly created) are likely to remain shrouded in mystery for generations to come. Perhaps the mystery is what makes the "Betsy Ross Flag" so intriguing. After all, the thought of a lonely and patriotic widow, bravely piecing together America's colors is as American as the treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. But that's a story for another day.


Lindsey Shuman said...

I've wondered about the Betsy Ross story. I guess it is like any other American Revolution tale. From Washington and the dollar bill and cherry tree, to Paul Revere's "ride", we hear these tales. It is what makes the revolution so confusing AND interesting.

Catherine said...

I am actually related to Betsy Ross (or at least that is what my Mother always told me). Anyway, I had no idea that there was even a controversy with regards to Betsy Ross and the first American flag. I guess selfishly I hope she did create the flag, that way I will be related to someone great in American history.

David Mabry said...

The problem is that there are no primary sources to confirm the story. Betsy Ross told her grandson, William Canby, about the "request" by Washington on her deathbed. He then presented the story in a paper to a Philadelphia historical society. Credible? It is left to us to judge. When an old dying Quaker seamtress lie to her grandson for the sake of fame?