It’s the stuff of elementary school pageants and patriotic legend: In the capital of a new nation at war with its colonial rulers, a widowed seamstress made history when she fashioned the first American flag. Her name was Betsy Ross, and … stop right there.
Although a beloved national myth holds that the Philadelphia upholsterer helped design and stitch the emblem of the United States, Ross’s involvement in the history of the American flag is widely regarded as apocryphal.
“Every historian who’s looked into it has found no credible evidence that Betsy Ross made the first American flag, or helped design it, or even that there was a flag committee,” says journalist and historian Marc Leepson, author of Flag: An American Biography. “It could have existed, but there is no evidence whatsoever.”
So how did the real-life Elizabeth Griscom Ross become associated with a widespread fable—and interwoven with the very threads of the Stars and Stripes?
The real Betsy Ross
Although Ross’s name appears in plenty of textbooks alongside those of the nation’s founders, the details of her life are more prosaic. Born Elizabeth Griscom in Gloucester City, New Jersey, in 1752, she was raised as a Quaker. In 1773, while serving as an apprentice to a Philadelphia upholsterer, she fell in love and eloped with John Ross, a member of a prominent Philadelphia family that included one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. For this “disorderly” and “undutiful” decision to marry a Protestant, the Quakers expelled her. (America declared independence on July 2—so why is the 4th a holiday?)
Betsy and John had their own upholstery business and a lively social life in Philadelphia, where they attended Christ Church with people like George Washington. But tragedy struck when John was killed in the Revolutionary War in 1775. Ross later married two more times and bore seven children. During her life, Ross brushed shoulders with some of the new nation’s most prominent figures (Christ Church’s congregation included 15 signers of the Declaration of Independence and other important figures in the American Revolution). She also sewed flags for Pennsylvania’s navy and supplied the Continental Army with goods such as tents during the Revolutionary War.
Ross died in 1836 at 84 years of age. But her name would hit the history books only after 1870, when her grandson, William J. Canby, spread a spurious legend in a speech on the history of the American flag to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
A patriotic—but possibly fictional—tale
In the speech, Canby claimed that a bereaved Betsy Ross had been approached in 1776 by George Washington and members of a congressional committee appointed to create a flag for their new nation. She suggested the flag include five-pointed stars instead of the six-pointed stars the committee had suggested, and she demonstrated how to cut them out with a piece of paper. Canby called on the world to acknowledge Ross as “an example of industry, energy and perseverance, and of humble reliance on providence.”
The story was soon printed in newspapers, and by 1873 an article in one of America’s most-read and most influential periodicals, Harper’s Weekly, spread it to the nation. It treated Canby’s anecdote as fact. Ross was “carrying on business of her own account in her little shop” when Washington, members of Congress, and other influential men paid her a visit, showed her a sketch of a proposed design, and asked her to make a flag with 13 six-pointed stars. “She intimated her willingness to try,” the author continued, repeating the story about her suggestion to use five-pointed stars.
The story’s popularity coincided with the birth of what Leepson calls “the cult of the flag”—a reverential, patriotic invocation of the nation’s emblem that began during the Civil War with the Union’s surrender at Fort Sumter in 1860 and continues today. Before the Civil War, use of the flag had been limited to the government and the military. But after Fort Sumter, says Leepson, the flag fad exploded. In the years that followed, adjacent phenomena like the 1892 Pledge of Allegiance and the push for a national Flag Day emerged. Wave after wave of flag fervor followed, and word of Ross’s accomplishment was largely accepted. (The long and surprising history of Flag Day.)
But historical reverence doesn’t equal historical truth. Though Ross’s grandson repeated family lore and even produced affidavits from family members attesting to the truth of the incident, Leepson says there’s no historical evidence to back it up.
If the flag committee or Ross didn’t design and produce the nation’s first official flag, who did? Evidence points to Francis Hopkinson, a patriot and naval flag designer who signed the Declaration of Independence and briefly represented New Jersey in the Continental Congress. In 1780, he billed the Continental Congress for designing the Great Seal and “the flag of the United States of America.” Hopkinson wanted a cask of wine for his services, but the government apparently never paid up.
A lasting legacy
True or not, the legend of Betsy Ross has lasted for more than a century. In 1892, it was further stoked by Charles H. Weisgerber’s iconic painting “Birth of Our Nation’s Flag,” which depicted an angelically lit Betsy Ross sewing the flag under the watchful eye of George Washington and others. Weisgerber drew on portraits of Ross’s daughters for the massive painting, and it immediately became a sensation. People lined up to see it at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the sentimental image became a national obsession.
Today, Betsy Ross has a bridge named after her. She’s appeared on postage stamps, and the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia is a popular tourist destination—even though it’s not clear the address was ever Ross’s home. An early design of the American flag is even known as the Betsy Ross flag. It has 13 red-and-white stripes with 13 five-pointed stars arranged in a circle to represent the colonies that fought for independence in the Revolutionary War. But despite over a century of trying, historians have yet to find contemporary evidence that connects Ross with the creation of the American flag. (Nine Fourth of July myths, debunked.)
Ross may have crossed paths with a historical figure who is known to have sewn an important early flag, however. Like Ross, Mary Young Pickersgill was a Philadelphia upholsterer who was paid to sew a flag during a military campaign, this time during the War of 1812. Pickersgill’s creation flew over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry when British troops attacked in September 1814—and was memorialized by poet Francis Scott Key as “the star-spangled banner.” Her original flag is preserved in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—and there is documentary evidence of her commission in Baltimore’s Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum.
But the lack of similar evidence connecting Ross to the first American flag doesn’t mean her life was unimportant. “She was a formidable woman,” Leepson says. As a businesswoman and a widow in a time inhospitable to women, Ross forged a place for herself in the new nation’s vibrant capital. And her story meant something to 19th- and 20th-century women, writes Ross biographer Marla Muller. She notes that in an era of debate over expanding women’s rights, Betsy Ross offered a vision of a female founder who contributed to the country without losing her femininity.
So why does the legend of Betsy Ross still resound with modern-day Americans? Chalk it up to superlatives and a bit of national nostalgia. “Americans love a first and a biggest and a most. It’s taken on a life of its own,” Leepson says. “It’s part of the fabric of American history. If only it were true.”