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Who Made the First American Flag?

Updated on July 6, 2015

The First Flag

In our early school years most of us were taught Betsy Ross made the first American Flag. But certain facts cast doubt on whether this is true or not. Although this is what we learned, in actuality, early colonists were unaware of this story. In fact, it wasn’t told until nearly a century later in 1870. Ross' grandson, William Canby, claimed he'd heard the story straight from his grandmother. And even he agreed the story needed confirmation.

Scholars generally agree it wasn’t Betsy who made the first flag. True, she was a flag maker. Documents show she was paid in 1777 by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board for making ship's colors. Although this doesn't prove she sewed the first flag, it's evident she was involved in making American flags.

The Ross Home
The Ross Home

The Story Goes...

The story goes she made the flag after a visit in June 1776 by George Washington, Robert Morris, and her husband's uncle, George Ross, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

It is told, one day in 1776, George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross visited Mrs. Ross, an upholsterer and seamstress. The men said they were a congressional committee charged with designing a new flag. Washington presented her with a sketch design for the flag. The design had 13 red and white stripes as well as 13 stars.

Supposedly, Ross suggested one change to Washington's design. Instead of six-pointed stars, she recommended five-pointed ones since they were easier to make. They liked the idea and she set to work sewing the first American flag.

Francis Hopkinson
Francis Hopkinson

Conflict With Britain

During the conflict with Britain, the colonies had been using a Union Jack within the design of their own flag. This confused British troops. Colonists were ready to establish their own identity and distance themselves from the British. So did Betsy Ross, take a part in making the flag?

Canby explained Col. George Washington was a family friend who frequently visited Ross' shop before the famous encounter. However, no written evidence exists suggesting Washington even knew Ross. What is known is George Ross, was the uncle of John Ross, Betsy's husband who unfortunately had recently died in a gunpowder explosion. Therefore, it's possible if George Ross were looking for a seamstress, he might have asked Betsy to do the job.

Some historians believe credit for designing the first American flag is Francis Hopkinson. The Francis Hopkinson flag story isn't as entertaining as the Betsy Ross story, though it is just as questionable.

Although not as well known as Betsy Ross, Hopkinson was an important figure in his own right. He was a representative of New Jersey in the Continental Congress and was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In addition, he was a lawyer, musician and poet.

Hopkinson helped to design numerous important symbols and seals for the United States in the nation's infancy. Such as the seal of New Jersey, the Continental Board of Admiralty seal, the seal of the American Philosophical Society, the Treasury Seal and the Great Seal of the United States.

In 1780, Hopkinson wrote a letter to the Board of Admiralty in which he claimed he designed the American flag and should be compensated. The board forwarded this letter to Congress. However, Hopkinson's request was denied, saying the flag was a collaborative effort and he was "not the only person" who contributed to the design. This response at least recognized he did have a hand in its design.

It is thought by some researchers Betsy Ross was credited with making the first American flag because the story was eagerly accepted by proponents fostering women’s important contributions in the making of our new fledgling nation. Also, many people were hungry for more information concerning the founding of our country and the tale made good fodder.

Betsy Ross’s full name was Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole. She was born in Philadelphia on New Year's Day, 1752. Her parents were Samuel and Rebecca Griscom, devout Quakers.

Betsy married three times resulting in seven daughters. Her first husband, John Ross, was not a Quaker so her parents disapproved of the marriage. When her husband was killed in a militia gunpowder accident, she inherited his upholstery business. At the age of 84, Betsy Ross supposedly told the flag making story to then 11 year old grandson, John Canby.

Betsy was the eighth of seventeen children and learned to sew from her great-aunt Sarah Elizabeth Ann Griscom. Her great-grandfather, Andrew Griscom, was a Quaker carpenter who emigrated in 1680 from England. .

After completing education at a Quaker public school, she was apprenticed to an upholsterer named William Webster. There, she met her future husband, fellow apprentice John Ross. The marriage caused a split from her family and also meant expulsion from the Quaker congregation. The couple started their own upholstery business and joined Christ Church where one of the members of the congregation was George Washington and his family.

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