June 14, 1777 - "Resolved: that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."
The legend of Betsy Ross and her association with the first American Flag has endured since her grandson first claimed in 1870 that she was its creator. The painting at left predates it by 20 years and shows a women's sewing circle making a "Betsy Ross Pattern" American Flag. The emergence of Betsy Ross as a "Founding Mother" reflects a great deal about our country nearly a century after its establishment and especially in those years immediately following the American Civil War, a symbol of unity for a wounded nation for it involves both Washington and feminine virtues, two icons embraced by both North and South.
Elizabeth Griscom was a child of Philadelphia Quaker parents. In 1773 she married outside the faith to an Anglican named John Ross - the nephew of my ancestor Margaret Ross. The marriage was brief, for she was widowed in January, 1776 when her husband was killed by exploding munitions being unloaded at the Philadelphia waterfront. Betsy continued to support herself running the upholstery business she and her husband had started together. This much of her history has been confirmed. What follows is widely accepted as fact but is shrouded in myth and may never have happened at all.
The story goes that sometime in late May, 1776, Betsy Ross received three visitors in her home. Two were members of the 2nd Continental Congress - Robert Morris and her deceased husband's Uncle George Ross. The third was General Washington, who when in Philadelphia worshiped at the same church as Betsy Ross in a pew next to her own. According to what she reputedly told family members later in life, Washington told her that this "committee of three" wished her to make a flag based on a rough design provided by Washington. She said that the original pattern had six-pointed stars, which she convinced them to modify because she could make stars with five points with a single snip. The flag was delivered shortly thereafter, and a year later its basic design was the one resolved by Congress as the official National Flag.
It is an appealing tale, but very hard to confirm.
"The Betsy Ross Story" is based solely on oral affidavits from her daughter and other relatives, which were made public in 1870 by her grandson, William J. Canby, in a paper read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. No primary sources of the time—letters, journals, diaries, newspaper articles, official records, or business records—have surfaced since 1870 confirming or disproving the story. The only further supporting documentation that Betsy Ross was involved in federal flag design is the Pennsylvania State Navy Board commissioning her for work in making "ships colors & c." in May 1777."
Washington was with the Continental Army in Cambridge until early April, 1776 and was in New York by April 14th. Martha Washington was inoculated against smallpox on May 23rd in Philadelphia and she and her husband were in the City from that date until their return to new York on June 7th. Washington's letters make no mention of a committee of three or of bringing a flag design to Betsy Ross.
William Canby's claim was published in the July, 1873 edition of Harper's Monthly in a lengthy article about the history of national standards and emblems from the time of the Romans down through the ages to the symbols of the American Republic. Images of the Betsy Ross home and the "flag committee" feature prominently in the article, firmly establishing the widow Ross within the pantheon of American myth and legend. Her image was heavily used in advertising and effectively became part of the American "brand."
Ironically, the first anti-flag desecration laws in this country date from the same period, as states responded to what many felt was excessive and inappropriate use of the national flag for advertising and political purposes.
As for Flag Day, its origins appropriately enough lie in in our public school system, where "Flag Birthday" was first proposed in 1885 by a Wisconsin school district. Other schools, organizations and states followed suit in subsequent years until Flag Day was officially established by President Wilson in 1916 and June 14th was formally designated as National Flag Day by an Act of Congress and signed into law by President Truman in 1949. My daughter's grade school held its Flag Day celebration today by singing patriotic songs and talking about good citizenship. Betsy Ross was not mentioned, but I have no doubt the kids still learn the legend. National myth-making, after all, is not the same as history, though certainly part of the fabric of the American story.