Betsy Ross: Did She Really Design the American Flag?
The recent controversy about the Betsy Ross 13-Star American Flag gives us a great opportunity to take a look at what we know about Betsy Ross' actual role in sewing the first American flag.
The name Betsy Ross is synonymous with the American flag. From the time we first learn history in school, Americans are taught that Betsy Ross sewed the first U.S. flag back in 1776. With its 13 red and white stripes and 13 stars arranged in circle on a field of blue, the Betsy Ross flag was undoubtedly the the first official flag of the U.S. - but was Betsy Ross really the creator?
Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross lived her life without ever receiving credit for the flag that eventually made her an American history icon. Her story was never revealed until almost a full century after the flag was sewn, when her grandson, William Canby first publicly relayed her story to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870.
According to her grandson, and supported by affidavits from her daughter, granddaughter, and niece, Betsy Ross often told of a visit she received from General George Washington, Robert Morris (financier of the Revolutionary War), and Colonel George Ross (a signer of the Declaration of Independence and her husband’s uncle) in May or June of 1776. During this visit, she was allegedly presented with a sketch of a flag with 13 stripes and 13 six-pointed stars and was asked to sew it to those specifications. She agreed after suggesting that the stars be five-point rather than six-point and arranged in a circle. On June 14, 1776, approximately a year after the meeting, Congress officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as the national flag of the United States of America.
While no official documentation exists to support the claim that Betsy Ross created the first U.S. flag, it is confirmed that she was indeed a flag maker as were is a receipt of a sum of more than 14 pounds paid to her in 1777 for making “ships colours” for the Pennsylvania State Navy.
With that in mind, some historians balk at the notion that Betsy Ross was the creator of the first flag of the United State, attributing its design to Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a New Jersey delegate tot he Continental Congress, as Hopkinson sought payment in 1780 from the Board of Admiralty for his design of the “flag of the United States of America.” This payment was, however, denied on the grounds that he was not the only one consulted on the design.
According to Colonial Williamsburg, Marc Leepson, author of a popular 2005 history of Old Glory, Flag: An American Biography, stated in an interview, “As far as the big question is concerned—Did she make the first American flag?—every historical study has come to the same conclusion. There’s no good historical evidence that she did. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t. There’s simply a lack of documentation. Most historians believe the story is apocryphal.” The Independence Hall Association, which has supported and advised Independence National Park in Philadelphia since 1942, however, backs the claim that Betsy Ross sewed our nation’s first flag. At www.ushistory.org/betsy, the association gives her full credit:
“Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. When we view the flag, we think of liberty, freedom, pride, and Betsy Ross. The American flag flies on the moon, sits atop Mount Everest, is hurtling out in space. The flag is how America signs her name. It is no surprise that Betsy Ross has become one of the most cherished figures of American History.”
And finally, The Betsy Ross House, a Philadelphia museum honoring the flag maker, promotes her story but also encourages its visitors to decide for themselves whether it’s “historical fact or well-loved fiction.”
What do you think? Did Betsy Ross design our nation’s very first flag?