Revolutionary War Historical Article

Betsy Ross
Did She or Didn't She?

by Donald N. Moran

Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole, better known to every American as "Betsy Ross" is an American icon. Whether deserved or not has been the subject of debate for generations.

Good historians always demand primary documentation to substantiate their positions on a given fact. In the case of whether or not Betsy Ross did create the first American flag, there is no supporting documentation, just a lot of circumstantial evidence.

This article will present overwhelming circumstantial evidence in support of Betsy.

 

WHO WAS BETSY ROSS?

Betsy's Great-Grandfather, Andrew Griscom, migrated to New Jersey and then Philadelphia in 1680. He was a Quaker. His grandson, Samuel Griscom married Rebecca James, also a Quaker. They had seventeen children, the eighth being Betsy. She was born on January 1st, 1752.

 

Artist Unknown - Probably a Concept Rather Than From Real Life

After completing her schooling her father apprenticed Betsy to an upholsterer where she fell in love with another apprentice, John Ross. John was not a Quaker, and the Quakers would not permit interdenominational marriages. In 1773 John and Betsy eloped to Hugg's Tavern in New Jersey and were married. The marriage resulted in Betsy being "read out" of the Quaker meeting house, and cut off from emotional and economic support.

The young married couple started their own upholstery business in Philadelphia. In the 18th century an upholstering business did all manner of sewing jobs. Betsy's skill with a needle drew customers like George Washington while he was serving at the Second Continental Congress. Washington was probably introduced to her by George Ross, a delegate from Philadelphia and the uncle of her husband.

When the Revolution started it had an immediate impact on the business. Materials were next to impossible to obtain, so business slowed down. This allowed John time to join the Pennsylvania Militia. In mid-January 1776, John was on guard duty at an ammunition magazine outside Philadelphia. What appears to have been an accidental explosion mortally wounded him. Betsy tried her best to nurse John back to health, but his wounds were too severe. He died on January 21st, 1776 and is buried at Christ Church Cemetery.

Betsy married for a second time in June of 1777 to Joseph Ashburn, a ship's Captain.

Joseph was commanding an American Privateer when he was captured by the British. He died in March 1782 in England's infamous Old Mill Prison leaving thirty year old Betsy a two time war widow.

Betsy learned of Joseph's demise from an old friend, John Claypoole, who was also captured and imprisoned at the Old Mill. They were later married at Christ Church. They lived happily unti1 1817 when John passed away after a long illness. Betsy never remarried.

She had two daughters by Joseph Ashburn, Zillah, who died young, and Elizabeth. By John Claypoole she had five daughters, Clarissa, Susannah, Rachel, Jane and Harriet. Harriet died when she was but nine months old. Betsy continued in her upholstery business unti1 1827, when she retired and moved in with her daughter Susannah (Satterthwaite) who lived in Abington, just north of Philadelphia.

Betsy died at her daughter's home on January 30th, 1836, at the ripe old age of 84 and was buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia.

In 1977 she and husband John Claypoole's remains were removed from Mount Moriah Cemetery and reinterred in the garden of the Betsy Ross House, where they can be viewed today.

 

THE FIRST FLAG DEBATE - ORIGIN

In March of 1870, undoubtedly for the forthcoming centennial, Betsy Ross' grandson, William Canby delivered a paper before the Pennsylvania Historical Society. In this paper, William glorified the contribution made by his grandmother to the cause of American independence.

Detractors of his report stated that he was but eleven years old when his grandmother died, hence, his recol1ections could not be totally accepted.

 

Additional family members then filed affidavits supporting kinsman William's recollections. They were Sophia Hildebrant, a granddaughter; Margaret Boggs, a niece; and Rachel Fletcher, a daughter. Unfortunately, all of their affidavits were based on stories told by Betsy. None had first hand knowledge of the events. However, Canby's report was widely accepted and in the July 1873 issue of Harper's Weekly, the story was retold. By the 1880's, the story could be found in textbooks, along with engravings of the painting by artist Casper Weisgerber, entitled "Birth of Our Nation's Flag", depicted above. The painting became so popular that it held a place of honor at the 1893 World Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Thusly, the legend was born!

 

THE DEBATE

The simplest way to present the debate is to use a question and answer format.

*****************

Con: The recollections of William Canby only eleven years old when his grandmother died, can't be trusted.

Pro: True enough, but the question is not whether or not Canby can be trusted but whether we can trust Betsy Ross. It is clear that Canby and the other members of the family based their affidavits on their recollection of what Betsy told them. Eighteenth century people frowned on self-aggrandizement and when Betsy was telling her story, there were numerous people living who could have criticized it. Betsy was proud of what she claimed to have done, and most likely was truthful.

*****************

Con: There are no official records or receipts of her having made the first American flag.

Pro: We have found one receipt showing that Betsy Ross was indeed a flag maker. At the Continental Board of War, dated May 29th, 1777 read: "An order on William Webb to Elizabeth Ross, for 14 pounds, 12 shillings and 2 pence for making ships colours and put into William Richard's stores".

 *****************

Con: Not a single reference can be found that makes reference to the first American flag.

Pro: Although flags were important to the military of the 18th century they were not a high priority item, in fact were rather unimportant. There are many things purchased by the Army with no surviving records. No significance can be given to the lack of supporting documentation from that period of time.

*****************

Con: Canby mentions Betsy had said she was visited by a "Committee", yet no record exist of a Congressional Flag Committee.

Pro: There being no record of a Committee is not at all surprising. At the time Congress was creating as many as six committees a day. Some of these committee actions were not recorded owing to the nature of what they were about. Others were established but no record of their actions were kept. In this particular case, why would a formal report be made of a three man "committee" taking an hour to have a flag sewn? Further, George Washington's personal involvement was no doubt more a social visit, as he knew Mrs. Ross.

*****************

Con: Again, citing Canby, he stated that Betsy said there was a debate over the flag design. There is no record of a debate over any flag.

Pro: The Flag Resolution was passed on June 14th, 1777 and read: "Resolved. That the flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the Union be 13 stars white in a field of blue representing a new constellation."

 *****************

 Con: In January 1776, Washington adopted the Grand Union flag. Why, in six months would the Army want another flag?

Pro: Quite simple. The Grand Union Flag consisted of 13 red and white stripes (The Sons of Liberty flag) and in the canton the Crosses of Saint Andrew and Saint George, the flag of Great Britain. On July 4th, 1776, the United Colonies declared their independence from the England, hence the canton of the British flag was improper.

*****************

Con: Why would the Commander-in-Chief and two members of Congress call upon an upholsterer, obviously of much lower social status?

Pro: To the contrary, Betsy Ross knew all three of the gentlemen. Colonel George Ross was her late husband's uncle. Congressman Robert Morris and General George Washington worshiped at Christ Church, as did Betsy. General Washington had employed her during his earlier stay in Philadelphia, and lastly, she lost her husband in the service of their Country. She was a very likely choice.

*****************

Con: Francis Hopkinson, the New Jersey delegate to Congress submitted an invoice in which he listed among numerous other. items "the design of the flag of the United States of America." He deserves credit for designing the flag.

 

Pro: From his headquarters at West Point, General Washington wrote on September 14th, 1779 to the Board of War regarding the need for a uniformed Regimental flag. "I agree with you in opinion, that the Standard, with the Union and Emblems in the Centre, is to be preferred; with this addition the number of the Regt. and the State to which it belongs inserted within the curve of the serpent, in such place, as the painter or designer shall judge most proper". It would appear that General Washington was thinking in terms of the Gadsden Flag (above left side) with the coiled rattlesnake, whereas the actual design being discussed was based on Hopkinson's Naval jack (above right). Since Congress had already approved a design for the National Flag, the General wanted a uniformed Regimental Flag for the Continental Army. The Rattlesnake design and the words "Don't Tread on Me" had even more patriotic and emotional meaning then as it does today. Those are "tough" words from a tough people!

 

EYE WITNESS SUPPORT FOR BETSY

Those detracting from Betsy Ross as the person who made the first U.S. Flag state that the "Time Line" of Betsy's flag predates Congress's flag resolution of June 14th, 1777.

John Trumbull who served as an Aide to General Washington and was at both Trenton (December 25th, 1776 and Princeton January 3rd, 1777) is acknowledged as the preeminent artist of the Revolution. He painted huge pictures of both battles. His paintings, in which he went to great efforts for accuracy, depicted the Betsy Ross Flag in both pictures.

Another artist, of almost equal fame, is Charles Willson Peale, who primarily painted portraits, served as a Captain under General Washington. He led a company of infantry at Princeton. Peale painted a portrait of General Washington in 1778, in which he went to the trouble to have the captured Hessian flags brought to his studio, and painted them at the General's feet. As a background of the painting, Peale used the thirteen star Betsy Ross flag.

It is hard to believe that artists known for their eye for accuracy and detail, would make an error and include a flag that did not exist at the time. They were both there and saw it for themselves!

These paintings are reproduced below:

 

 

 

Another historic relic. She and Samuel Wetherill, a long time friend of Betsy, were the last two members of the Free Quaker Meeting House in Philadelphia. The Free Quakers was established for those Quakers who were required to leave the group because they supported the Revolutionary War effort. The two of them closed the meeting house in 1834. The tradition of the Wetherill family states that Samuel visited Betsy shortly after the Congressional delegation had accepted her flag. Apparently Samuel spotted the paper template that Betsy had made to ensure that each star was identical in size. rea1izing the historic value of the"first flag" and asked her for it. Today, the five pointed star template is on display at the "Free Quaker Meeting House" which is now a Museum.

 

THE FORT TICONDEROGA MUSEUM 13-STAR FLAG

Unfortunately, in our zeal to preserve the past, we take a lot for granted. "If it is plausible, it's probably true" prevails over "There is no truth without Proof". This thinking leads to errors. Such is the case of the General Schyuler / Betsy Ross flag now proudly displayed at the Fort Ticonderoga Museum.

 

The provenience of flag is as follows: General Philip Schuyler was a delegate from New York to the Continental Congress.

On May 22nd, 1777, the Board of War appointed him Commander of the Northern Division of the Continental Army. Before he left Philadelphia he had a flag made.

General Schuyler took command and prepared for the British invasion that was coming. Because of politics, he was replaced with General Horatio Gates. Schuyler returned to his home in Albany and took the flag with him. His daughter Elizabeth married Alexander Hamilton. The flag was passed down to their descendants and donated to the Museum.

This relic of the Revolution is controversial as the provenience of this flag is based on "family tradition", without supporting written documentation.

 

CONCLUSION

It is doubtful that historians will ever be able to prove who made the first American flag.

 

However there appears to be a great deal of circumstantial evidence supporting the claim that it was Betsy Ross. She was there, she made flags, and she knew key people in the Congress including George Washington himself. The only thing of importance that is at stake is the continuation of the Betsy Ross House Museum in Philadelphia.The question still remains.

Did she or didn't she?

Back to Index of Biographies

Back to Index of Articles on George Washington

Back to Index of Articles on Revolutionary War Places & Things

Back to Historical Archives

link to aboutus