The flag of the United States was created during a turbulent time in the country’s history. Combined with the fact that it’s meant to evolve with time, the U.S. flag has one of the most complex histories of any of the world’s flags. For this reason, we will cover the U.S. flag in several posts.
If you ever get the chance to visit Philadelphia, you will most likely see buildings in the historic district flying American flags with a circle of 13 stars in the canton (the blue part in the upper left corner). Having grown up close to Philadelphia and visited the historic district on many elementary school trips, I assumed for a long time that this particular design was America’s first flag and that Betsy Ross made it (we’ll cover Betsy Ross in another post). While this particular design was eventually used, it was not America’s first flag.
Despite not officially declaring independence until July 4, 1776, war between Britain and the American colonies (then known as the United Colonies) had already begun more than a year before with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. By the time the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, they were already functioning as a de facto war government and would approve the creation of a Continental Army and Navy in June and October, respectively.
By the end of 1775, the American forces realized they needed a flag that differentiated themselves from the English vessels and troops that were using the British ensign system and the Union flag. However, they had not officially declared independence and some people in the colonies were hoping for a resolution in which they remained under British rule. Therefore, their flag needed to still reflect loyalty to the English crown. The design that was settle upon is known as the Grand Union flag; still featuring Great Britain’s Union flag in the canton, but using a 13-stripe pattern to represent the 13 colonies and to differentiate itself from the solid red and white British ensigns.
It is not known who designed the Grand Union Flag or when they did, however we do know that it was first hoisted aboard the colonial warship USS Alfred on Dec. 3, 1775 while it was docked in Philadelphia. John Paul Jones, a U.S. naval legend who is regard by many as “The Father of the American Navy,” claims to have hoisted the flag himself (he had just been given the rank of Lieutenant).
This flag may look familiar to some vexillologists (people who study flags), and for good reason; it is extremely similar to the flag of the British East India Company (BEIC). Formed in 1600, the BEIC pursued trading in the Eastern Hemisphere (particularly the Indian subcontinent) and would become the most powerful company in the history of the world, at one point controlling half of the world’s trade and a quarter of its population. Starting in 1707, BEIC vessels flew a red and white striped flag with a British Union flag in the canton.
Because of the size and influence of the BEIC, it wouldn’t be farfetched to say that colonial Americans were influenced by the design. However, since we still do not know who designed the Grand Union flag, we cannot find any documentation confirming the influence. There are also a few other factors at play:
- The Grand Union flag would be very easy to create, especially for colonies that were short on many supplies, including dyes. One could be made by attaching strips of white cloth to a British red ensign from a merchant ship.
- There was no standardized number of stripes on BEIC flags. Examples have been found with as few as nine to as many as 15 stripes, with nine stripe variants being the most prevalent. So even if the Grand Union flag was inspired by the BEIC flag, it gives credibility to idea that the 13 stripes were purposefully created to represent the colonies.
There are two similar flag designs associated with the Sons of Liberty that can be traced back to the 1760s, prior to the Revolutionary War. One flag featured nine vertical red and white stripes while the other featured 13 horizontal red and white stripes. The 13-stripe variant was also very popular among Colonial American merchant ships. It would make sense that the Grand Union flag evolved from this popular merchant flag as the Continental Navy’s first vessels were former merchant ships that were armed.
The Grand Union flag would eventually be replaced on June 14, 1777, the day when the Flag Act of 1777 was passed. The act would institute the creation of the first variant of a stars and stripes flag. June 14 is celebrated in America as flag day.