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Betsy Ross: How the Seamstress Became an Enduring Symbol of American Patriotism

She's said to have created the first American flag, but the real story is more complicated.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Who was Betsy Ross? Ask most schoolchildren—and many adults—and they’ll tell you that she made the first American flag, a story that has been widely debunked by historians. Yet over the years, Ross’s legend has grown from the story of a flesh and blood woman who worked as a seamstress into part of the American mythos, a tale as enduring and outsized as a young George Washington apocryphally chopping down the cherry tree.

Even her name is a simplified abstraction of a real and more complicated person. Born Elizabeth Griscom, she married John Ross in 1773 and was widowed within just a few years, before the alleged meeting that supposedly led to the creation of the first flag. By 1778, she had remarried, and went by Elizabeth Ashburn until her second husband perished in a British prison. They had a daughter together named Eliza. She then married John Claypoole, with whom she had four daughters who survived to adulthood, and she bore his name until her own death in 1836.

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Legend has it that Ross was approached by George Washington and two other members of a congressional committee in June of 1776 at her small Philadelphia home. Washington had a design for the flag, and she was asked to execute it, though it wouldn’t be a good story if she didn’t add her own flourish to the design. What precisely that was varies by source. Some accounts say that Ross changed the stars from six points to five, and that she insisted that the original 13 stripes should stay, even should new states be added, arguing that these additional states could be represented by more stars.

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Most of the time, the story ends there. Having effectively given birth to the most enduring symbol of the nation, Ross’s time in the spotlight is over. When the rest of her life is highlighted at all, she is usually said to have spent the remainder of her years sewing additional flags, decade after decade, suitably anchoring the person to the symbol and the myth that would inevitably grow larger than any living person could ever encompass.

While the story takes place on a fateful night in 1776—a full year before Congress adopted the so-called “stars and stripes” as the official flag of the United States—it didn’t actually surface until nearly a century later, when William J. Canby, Ross’s grandson, gave a presentation before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Canby recounted the tale as he claimed it was told to “a dozen or more living witnesses, of whom I myself am one, though but a little boy when I heard it.” Even then, however, Canby didn’t hear it directly from Ross herself, but from his aunt some 20 years after Ross’s death.

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Unfortunately, there was nothing but family tradition to support Canby’s tale, and no previous mention of his ancestor designing the first flag exists before that 1870 presentation. So, did Betsy Ross design the first flag at General Washington’s behest, creating those five-pointed stars with but “a single clip of the scissors,” as her grandson asserted all those years ago? 

Historians think not. For one thing, there really was no “first flag.” The “stars and stripes” underwent a number of permutations before settling into the shape we know them as today—not just the addition of stars for new states, but changes such as the presence of blue stripes alongside the red and white, which can be found in flag sheets dating back to the 1780s.

Ross was actually one of several Philadelphia seamstresses who sewed flags for the Continental Army during the Revolution. One of her contemporaries was Rebecca Young, who had sewn the earlier Grand Union Flag, and whose daughter, Mary Young Pickersgill, was responsible for sewing the specific flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. It was this “star-spangled banner” which Francis Scott Key famously saw “by the dawn’s early light,” inspiring him to write what became America’s national anthem.

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So, how did the story of Ross’s creation of the “first flag” so completely enter the public consciousness? Look no further than the celebration of the nation’s centennial, which was celebrated at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. At the time, according to the National Museum of American History, patriotic Americans were hungry for stories about the Revolution and other tales that would help them feel connected to the founding of the nation. The myth got further traction at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, where Charles Weisgerber's painting "The Birth of Our Nation's Flag" was on display.

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  • A 1968 stamp with the design that's come to be known as the "Betsy Ross flag."

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that Ross likely didn't actually sew the first flag. What matters is her position as an American hero, the persistence of oral history in American civic life, what her story tells us about the role of women during the Revolution, and what it tells us about how Americans wish to perceive themselves. In her article “How Betsy Ross Became Famous: Oral Tradition, Nationalism, and the Invention of History,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Harvard University professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich put it bluntly, stating that Betsy Ross succeeded as a folk hero in part because she “excited little controversy. She appeared to affirm both the nation’s devotion to freedom and the power of white women to shape history.”

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Beginning with the nation's centennial celebration in 1876, the story of Betsy Ross was handed down—as it has been in schools for more than a century since—and she was positioned as a patriotic role model for girls and a symbol of women’s contributions to American history. Despite historians debunking her legendary claim to fame, Betsy Ross remains one of the most recognizable names associated with the American Revolution, and she seems to be firmly cemented within the pantheon of American folk heroes.

Sources: Commonplace