Almost every nation has a Flag Day, and for the United States of America, the 14th of June marks the anniversary of the Flag Resolution of 1777 where the “Stars and Stripes” was adopted as the official flag of this independent nation. The U.S. flag is rich in symbolism, with a stripe for every original colony and a star for every current state. The colors are symbolic as well: red represents Hardiness and Valor, while white stands for Innocence and Purity. The field of blue symbolizes Justice, Perseverance, and Vigilance. Whether being revered by veterans or burned by activists, the U.S. Flag always holds deeper meaning than its simple cloth and thread would suggest. In addition to the symbolism imbued in the flag itself, the story of the flag’s origin is itself a staple of American Folklore.
Generations of school children have heard the story of Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross and how she was handpicked by George Washington to create the first flag of a fledgling nation. Artwork, literature, and living histories have perpetuated the image of an elderly Betsy Ross siting and sewing stars on the field of blue. But few have questioned whether this story is accurate, a mixture of fact and fiction, or simply a fantastic tale adding some mythology and mystique to a country desperately in need of its own identity separate from that of rebellious colonies formerly of the British Empire.
Born Elizabeth Griscom to Samuel and Rebecca Griscom on 1 Jan 1752 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Betsy was the 8th of 17 children born to this Quaker family which, three generations prior, first arrived in New Jersey from England in 1680. Apprenticed to learn the craft of an upholsterer, Betsy fell in love with fellow apprentice John Ross. Despite the fact that John was not a Quaker and thus was an unsuitable spouse by the conventions of the day, Betsy married John without her family’s blessing in 1773. They started an upholstery business together, but unfortunately were married for only two years when John Ross was killed while serving in the militia during the Revolutionary War. It is shortly after this tragic event in her life that the familiar legend takes place.
Perhaps as a favor granted to Colonel George Ross, the uncle of her recently deceased husband, or maybe simply as a request from one parishioner to another at a common place of worship, General George Washington, Colonel Ross, and Robert Morris are said to have visited Betsy in 1776 and requested she create a flag with 13 stars and 13 stripes according to a sketch which they provided. Betsy is said to not only have accepted this request, but to have suggested significant changes to the design which included putting the 13 stars in a circle and giving the stars five points instead of the six which were suggested. This event was recounted to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania by Betsy’s grandson William Canby in 1870, almost 100 years after it allegedly took place.
It is widely accepted that Betsy did make flags, and she likely knew all the major characters in this story. While there a lack of documentation to support the details of this legend, there is also no evidence that Betsy didn’t make the first “Stars and Stripes.” Some historians offer up Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson as an alternative creator for the first U.S. Flag, and his other contributions lend credence that he may indeed have had input on the design. However, historians have not been able to produce the evidence necessary to remove Betsy Ross from the mythos of American History.