In July, our hearts beat stronger as we remember our forefathers' (and mothers') fight to gain freedom from the tyranny of English rule.
After an official declaration of independence in 1776, patriots knew that freedom would come at a high cost, if it came at all. As the war stretched into 1777, General George Washington, leader of the Continental Army, saw a need for an icon; a flag that would wave over the desperate troops and carry them onward.
Nothing in this world, nor in that one, is original and the flag imagined by General Washington was a version of other flags such as naval colors, country standards and banners of all sorts. Since he was busy with war and politics, he asked for designs to be offered from people in the area. Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, is recognized by Congress today as the official designer of the first flag. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a resolution that the flag of the thirteen states should have thirteen stripes, alternating red and white. It should have a blue union with white, 6-point stars representing a 'new constellation'. It was to have a stripe added when each new state was added to the union
The question is, who actually sewed the flag?
Elizabeth Griscom Ross, of course.
Born a 'lady' into a fourth generation American family, the eighth of seventeen children of Samuel and Rebecca (James) Griscom on January 1, 1752 in New Jersey, she was a Quaker child, well schooled in the academic as well as the Needle Arts. It was the Needle Arts that made young Betsy 'famous' in the surrounding area. She won many awards in school and in the regions nearby for her fine sewing and exquisite embroidery.
Betsy's spinster aunt, Sarah, was that rarest of all phenomenon, a female business owner. She started and ran a Stay and Corset manufactory in nearby Philadelphia. Since these items were the foundation of all fashion of the period, she did very well. She also helped to care for her neises and nephews and was well qualified to be Betsy's needle work teacher. Her benign influence was felt throughout Betsy's life and career.
At age 20, Betsy was apprenticed, in Philadelphia, to an upholsterer named William Webster. She excelled at her work, sewing ruffles for men's shirt fronts and cuffs, making naval colors and banners of all sorts, and records show that she was paid 'a large sum of money' by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board for making flags. She did learn to upholster furniture as well.
Within this intimate atmosphere, she met the love of her life, John Ross, who as also a apprentice. They became friends and slowly the friendship blossomed into romance-with problems. Betsy had been admonished her whole life to marry within the religion, or else. John was not a Quaker, he was the son of Aeneas Ross, an Episcopalian minister. After a year of working together, the young couple could not bear to be apart and so they married. And, Betsy was excommunicated from the Quaker family, including her own relatives. Soon after, the Rosses established their own upholstery business and it thrived. Also, soon after, John joined the Pennsylvania Militia and Betsy worked in the family business. John was blown up in a raid, and poor Betsy was left a widow. Her sewing skills came to her rescue. She continued to run the business and provided herself with a livelihood. The couple had no children. She married twice more and was widowed twice more.
Making the Flag
There is a lot of controversy over the 'title' of first maker of the American Flag. The truth is no one knows for sure that Betsy Ross was that first seamstress; but then, no one knows that she was not. Naysayers, of which there are many, insist that there is no proof that she made it. Others say there is no proof that she did not.
Her grandson, William J. Canby, said that his grandmother had often told the family of her work with Gen. Washington, a friend of the family, Col. George Ross, her husband's uncle, and Robert Morris, a Congressman from Philadelphia who was a great financier of the war, planning and sewing the large flag. They came to her shop and Gen. Washington showed her the design drawn by Francis Hopkinson with its 6-point stars. At that time, six, eight and twelve point stars were the usual style and it was considered to be too difficult to cut an accurate five-point star. It is said that Betsy quickly folded a piece of paper and, with one cut, unfolded a perfect five-point star. So, Gen. Washington adopted that design. Camby also said that his grandmother suggested the circle of stars to make all thirteen colonies equal in importance.
Whether or not any of this is true, it is taught to school children throughout America and is so favorite a story that it would be impossible to refute it. The truth is, Americans are less interested in who made the flag than in Beautiful Betsy herself. She represents to us, women's contribution in the original fight for freedom, just as Paul Revere represents the common man in that same battle. We need our heros, and we will take them any way we can get them.
Did Betsy Ross make the first ever American Flag? Of course, she did.