There are certain facts and stories about historical figures that Americans have grown up with: George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree, Albert Einstein flunking math, Ben Franklin flying a kite during a thunderstorm. One that I heard a lot in my youth, especially having grown up in the Philadelphia region, was that Betsy Ross made the first American flag. That fact is pretty much history 101. Except, it isn’t. In fact, all of the stories mentioned either stretch the truth in a big way or are flat out lies that somehow have embedded themselves in the public consciousness as hard truths. Being that this is a flag website, guess which of these myths we are going to examine? (Hint: It’s Betsy Ross).
Before we dive into the inaccuracies, let’s review the “legendary” story of Betsy Ross.
In July 1776, Ross, a Philadelphia-based flag maker, was visited by a trio of American Founding Fathers: Colonel (at the time) George Washington, Robert Morris, and Ross’ great uncle George Ross. The delegation discussed the need for a national flag and asked Ross to sew the design that they presented her. Ross accepted the request after modifying the design by using five-pointed stars instead of the proposed six-pointed stars. According to the story, the delegation had wanted five-pointed stars but thought they would be too hard to mass produce. Ross was able to show them an easy way to make a five-pointed star. The completed design that is still attributed to Ross to this day featured 13 stars in a circle, all pointing outward from the center.
So that’s the story. Notice how in no way does it claim that she designed the first flag, it only claims that she sewed it and contributed the five-pointed star modification. (We’re referring to the first Stars and Stripes variant in this instance. We already know that America’s first flag was the Grand Union flag.) How the legend has evolved to say that Ross did design the first flag is only a testament to how an oral story can evolve through time. So now that we are aware of the story, let’s examine some of its murky details.
First and foremost, this story did not come directly from any of the people involved. It was first published in an 1870 paper by Ross’ great-grandson William J. Canby, 34 years after Ross’ death and nearly a century after the events of the story supposedly took place. Canby claims he got the information in 1857 from his aunt Clarissa Sydney, still more than 20 years after Ross’ death.
The timing of Canby’s paper was also convenient. Smithsonian researchers traced the spread of the lore around Ross to 1876, when the American public was looking for any patriotic stories from the Revolutionary War to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the country’s independence.
The eager public almost immediately latched on to the story of a female role model from the founding of the nation. However, this patriotic fervor allowed a lot of inaccuracies and questionable details to slip through. First and foremost, we know that national flags weren’t really a widespread concept during the late 18th century and any flags representing a nation were used almost exclusively on boats. Second, yet equally as damning, was that there were no congressional records indicating anything about a national flag in 1776 or any mention of Ross or a national flag in the personal records of Washington, Morris, or Ross. The first mention of any flag was the congressional records on the Flag Resolution of 1777, nearly a year after the colonies declared independence. This shows that there was no urgency in wanting or needing a national flag.
Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence, there could be a few shreds of truth in the Ross legend. If she did make any Stars and Stripes flags, they may have been in the “Ross Flag” style that we know. However, this is unlikely, as the oldest known representation of that particular design was in a 1792 painting by John Trumbull. It is also important to remember that while Ross was a flag maker (she was technically an upholsterer, but many in the upholstery business did make flags at this time), she was hardly the only one in Philadelphia. Colonial port cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston had dozens of flag makers, each churning out various designs for the growing colonial fleet and for other ships whose flags had simply worn out. Since there was no official arrangement to the stars or stripes, each flag maker produced a unique product. This resulted in dozens of examples of Revolutionary American flags, including Hopkinson’s Flag (Francis Hopkins is widely regarded as the creator of the Stars and Stripes design), the flag of the C.N.S Alliance, and the John Hulbert flag.
It is also possible the Ross may have been the first person to use the five-pointed star, a staple of American flags today. However, the influence of Ross’ potential design would not truly take effect until well after the war, as examples of pre-19th century flags can be found with anywhere from five-pointed stars to eight-pointed stars.
So what is the true story of Betsy Ross? It seems that we may never know. But we can say with a high degree of certainty that she did not design or sew the first Stars and Stripes.