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Who was Betsy Ross?

Updated on December 2, 2016

The fourth generation of a strict Quaker family, Betsy Ross (born Elizabeth Griscom) was the great granddaughter of Andrew Griscom, who emigrated from England to America in 1680 and settled in what is now Philadelphia the year before William Penn's arrival. Griscom, who was a loyal supporter of all Penn's theories about founding a colony, was the builder of the first brick house in Philadelphia. Betsy's grandfather and her father were also master builders; on the walls of the Assembly Room in historic Carpenters' Hall, where the first Continental Congress met, a large framed membership list of the Carpenters' Company since its founding in 1724 contains the names of Tobias and Samuel Griscom. Betsy's mother was Rebecca James, sister of Abel James, head of the importing firm of James and Drinker, which figured in Revolutionary history because of the "tea incident" with the British brig, Polly (1773).

Early Years and Marriage

Betsy and her seven sisters and a brother were educated in Friends' schools. On November 4, 1773, in Gloucester, N. J., she married John Ross, son of an Episcopalian clergyman, at one time assistant rector of Christ Church and later of Trinity Church. This was against her parents' wishes and the discipline of the Quaker Meeting to which the family belonged. For "marrying out of meeting" she was disowned by the Society of Friends (Quakers).

After her marriage, she and her husband attended Christ Church, whose membership included John's uncle, Col. George Ross, a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Their marriage was short-lived, however. John Ross, having joined the militia at the approach of the Revolution, was injured gravely by a gunpowder explosion while guarding stores on the waterfront and died on Jan. 21, 1776. After his death, Betsy successfully carried on the upholstery business her husband had established.

Making of the Flag

According to family tradition she made the first flag of stars and stripes in early June 1776 for a secret committee consisting of George Washington, Robert Morris, who often put his personal finances behind the struggling patriots, and Colonel Ross, her husband's uncle. In 1870 her grandson, William J. Canby, made public the family's story of this committee's visit to Betsy, which took place during Washington's stay in Philadelphia in May-June 1776. His account related that she made the flag from a rough sketch, which, on her suggestion, had been redrawn in pencil by Washington in her back parlor. There is no written record of the committee ordering this flag; at that time business was done largely by committees and some of them were secret. However, in his History of the Flag (Boston 1880), Admiral George H. Preble presents the Betsy Ross version, and while he was unable to verify it except by statements attributed to her, he did not find anyone with a legitimate claim to supplant hers.

Later Life

On June 15, 1777, Betsy married Joseph Ashburn in the oldest church in Philadelphia, .Gloria Dei (Old Swedes' Church). Three years later, in October, Ashburn sailed on a mission from which he never returned; he was captured on the high seas by the British and put in Old Mill Prison, Plymouth, England, where he died, March 3, 1782. John Claypoole, a friend of both Betsy and Ashburn, had preceded him in this prison, and to him Ashburn confided his last message for Betsy. On June 22, 1782, Claypoole sailed from England on the Symmetry, along with several hundred other exchange prisoners, reaching America about two months later and delivering to Betsy the message entrusted to him. Claypoole returned to his life at sea that fall arid winter, but in the following spring, on May 8, 1783, he and Betsy were married.

Claypoole was also of Quaker descent, and later on he and Betsy joined the Free Quakers, a group (formed by the hundreds of Friends disowned during the war) which permitted war in self-defense and also marrying out of meeting. The Claypooles lived for a while at 239 Arch Street and later on at South Front Street. Betsy had a very profitable business, employing many hands, and counted among her patrons, besides the United States government, merchants, ship owners, clubs, and civic and patriotic organizations. After Claypoole's death in 1817, she continued the business until about 1827, when her daughter Clarissa Wilson took over and carried on until 1857. Of Betsy's two daughters by Ashburn, one died in infancy, and of her five daughters by Claypoole, four lived to maturity.

Betsy Ross is the first official flag maker of which the government has any record. After diligent research in government and historical records, the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association, incorporated in 1898, accepted the Betsy Ross story, and in 1941 offered the Flag House at 239 Arch Street to the city of Philadelphia. It was accepted by ordinance of the City Council, May 26, 1941. On January 1, 1952, a three-cent postage stamp was issued by the United States government in commemoration of her 200th birthday.


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    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Terrific hub, very interesting. Thank you. I can really picture Betsy sewing the first American flag from a rough GW sketch!