First American Flag History
While there is no doubt that the real Betsy Ross was worthy of interest in her own right, it is the legend of Betsy sewing the first stars and stripes that has made her an unforgettable historical figure.
The Betsy Ross story was brought to public attention in 1870 by her grandson, William Canby, in a speech he made to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Canby and other members of Betsy's family signed sworn affidavits stating that they heard the story of the making of the first flag from Betsy's own mouth.
According to the oral history, in 1776, three men - George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross, visited Betsy Ross in her upholstery shop. She escorted them to her parlor, where they could have a private meeting. Here, Washington showed Betsy a sketch of a flag with thirteen red and white stripes and thirteen six-pointed stars.
Washington asked if Betsy could make a flag from the design. Betsy responded: "I do not know, but I will try."
This line was used in the sworn statements of many of Betsy's family members, suggesting that it is a direct quote from Betsy.
As the story goes, Betsy suggested changing the stars to five points rather than six. She showed them how to do it with just one snip of her scissors. They all agreed to change the design to have stars with five points.
Despite the absence of written records to prove the story, there are several reasons why historians believe it could be so:
- George Ross, a member of the Flag committee, was the uncle of Betsy's late husband, John. This could be one reason why Betsy was chosen to make the first flag. Another uncle-in-law, George Read, was a delegate from Delaware and a member of the Marine Committee with Robert Morris. Since making the flag was an act of treason, it is significant that these men would know of her allegiance to the Revolutionary cause.
- Betsy and John Ross made bed hangings for George Washington in 1774, so Washington would have been familiar with her and the quality of her work.
- It was common for upholsterers to take up other forms of work during wartime. They were no longer getting their regular upholstery work, so many upholsterers made money by making tents, uniforms, and flags for the soldiers.
- On May 29, 1777, Betsy Ross was paid a large sum of money from the Pennsylvania State Navy Board for making flags, and on June 14, 1777, Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as our official national flag.
- Betsy would continue to make flags for over 50 years, many of which were through government contracts. Many receipts exist for her work in the first two decades of the 19th century. For example, in 1811, Betsy made over 50 garrison flags for the U.S. Arsenal on the Schuylkill River.
- In the 18th century, flags were not revered as they are today. The flag had not yet become a symbol of liberty or patriotism; it was more frequently regarded as a military tool like a tent or a uniform. Betsy Ross told her children and grandchildren the legendary story not because she had made the first flag, which was probably somewhat insignificant in her mind, but because General George Washington, a great man who would later become the first President of the United States, visited her home and asked her to make something for him.
Whether you choose to believe Betsy Ross made the first flag, there is no doubt that she was a prominent early American flag maker who stitched flags for the federal government for over 50 years.
Plan your group trip to Historic Philadelphia with unique experiences from the Betsy Ross House, Franklin Square, and Once Upon A Nation! From interactive Storytelling tours and Philadelphia-themed mini golf to performances by historic reenactors, it's all listed right here!