Betsy Ross Did Not Design the First American Flag

About the true story behind who designed the first American flag.


Betsy Ross Did Not Design the First American Flag.

In June, 1776, shortly before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia seamstress-upholsterer Betsy Ross received three prestigious visitors in her shop at 239 Arch Street: Gen. George Washington, financier and politician Robert Morris, and Col. George Ross, uncle of her late husband, John, a Pennsylvania militiaman who had been killed in combat earlier that year. The men had with them a rough design for the flag of the new republic and were wondering if she would be able to execute it. Yes, Betsy said, she'd certainly try, adding that a five-pointed star could be scissored from material more easily than the six-pointer the gentlemen had in mind. Soon thereafter Betsy presented them with her handiwork, and it was immediately adopted by the Congress as the first American flag.

That, anyway, is what Betsy's grandson, William J. Canby, would have had the world believe. Speaking before the Pennsylvania Historical Society on Mar. 14, 1870, Canby recalled that 34 years earlier, when he was a boy of 11, his dying grandmother had recounted to him that very story, and that in 1857 an aunt of his who was Betsy's daughter by her third husband had likewise dictated it to him. She claimed to have heard her mother relate the anecdote quite often, and similar claims were made at the time by a niece and a granddaughter of Betsy's. None, of course, ever said she saw Betsy stitching away at the Stars and Stripes-only that Betsy had said she had.

Nor is there any other hard evidence at all supporting the story. No record exists of an official flag-designing committee, and the Congress is unlikely to have approved the first flag earlier than June 14, 1777. In fact, the only extant proof that Betsy Ross made any flags at all is a voucher dated May 29, 1777, for & 14, received for flags made for the Pennsylvania navy.

Had Canby published his story at any other time in American history, he surely would have been laughed at with scorn. But Philadelphia was gearing up for its forthcoming centennial celebration and was very much in the mood to be charmed by such a tale. It was circulated widely as historical fact, written into school textbooks, and accepted gleefully as common knowledge.

But the Ross legend was not without its gain-sayers and several threatened lawsuits, despite the apparent legitimation of the story by the founding of the Betsy Ross Memorial Association, whose stated aims were to honor Betsy's memory and buy back her shop and home on Arch Street. To support its mission, the group sold some 2 million memberships priced at 100 each. Mostly schoolchildren joined.

Despite the waxing popularity of the association, its detractors continued to carp, charging that the fund-raising campaign was a get-rich-quick scheme for its promoters. Even when the association gave the lie to this accusation by using the money it had raised to purchase the building, the attackers would not be quiet. They asserted that the shop itself was a sham and had nothing to do with Betsy Ross. Whether it did or not, it isn't likely that she made the first American flag there.

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