Sunday, May 19, 2013

Who Made The First American Flag? Not Betsy Ross.

The American Revolution is shrouded in many myths and legends. From the ideas that Americans won the war fighting in a guerilla style, to the notion that the war was strictly between the Brits and us, even Molly Pitcher the heroine of the Battle of Monmouth. But one myth that really bothers me is the Betsy Ross flag myth. So what is my beef with Betsy Ross? Nothing really, but she did not make the first American Flag and it is time most Americans know why she gets the credit but more importantly why she doesn't deserve it.

We all know the story of Betsy Ross. She was just sitting around her house in Philadelphia in 1776, when all of a sudden George Washington showed up and was like, "Hey Betsy, stitch me a flag really quick." Ok, so that is not an exact quote or even what happened but I am just having a little fun here. To be honest Ross was a well know upholsterer in the city of Philadelphia, but one of many upholsterers. She repaired uniforms, tents, blankets and so on, but flags? Well that is whats up for debate here. The truth is there are several other people ahead of Ross as creators of an American flag, but not the present day American Flag, you know, Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes, The Star Spangled Banner.

So if Ross wasn't first who could have it been? Well the list is pretty long, there's Margaret Manny, who is credited with creating the Grand Union Flag. There is also  Rebecca Young, Anne King and Cornelia Bridges, all who were better known flag makers than Ross. Other options would be William Barrett, Hugh Stewart, Francis Hopkinson or William Alliborne, all of whom were involved with flags in one way or another. Aside from these possible flag makers there are a few other facts to take into consideration. First, there is no evidence that Ross and Washington knew each other, or that Washington ever visited her shop. Second, the flag is never mention at all, in any letters by any member of the Continental Congress in 1776, in fact there is no mention of a flag by anyone in that year. Third, and perhaps most important, Congress issued the Flag Resolution in 1777, a full year after the supposed Ross Flag was made. But why does Ross get all the credit?

The name William J. Canby really does jump out as one of those big names in History, but Mr. Canby is the reason why Ross gets the credit for the first American flag. Canby was the grandson of Ross and was the first to make the claim about Ross's role as the mother of the American flag. It happened in 1870, six years before the American centennial celebration. His proof? Family stories passed down from generation to generation. And because of Canby and his claim people now visit 239 Arch Street every time they visit Philadelphia to see where the first American flag was made, and learn a little more about Betsy Ross.
However, what is not mentioned is that Canby's story and history really don't match up. For most of 1776, George Washington was preoccupied with the British in the Northeastern states and then later in New York and New Jersey. It wouldn't be till the end of 1776 that Washington would spend some considerable time in Philadelphia, but even then he was preparing for his counter attack that would then sing the tide of war in favor of the Americans.

So who made the first flag? Well, I am not sure, but I am sure it wasn't Betsy Ross. Lets review the facts, there are no letters, diaries, newspaper accounts or bills of sale implicating Ross had anything to do with the creation or even making of the flag. Even the National Museum of American History's research has proven that there is no evidence supporting the Ross Flag and have deemed it just part of American folklore. Also Ross biographer Marla Miller said, Betsy Ross was one of several flag makers in Philadelphia, and her only contribution to the design was to change the 6-pointed stars to the easier 5-pointed stars. So, Facts 3, Ross 0. But lets remember Ross only gets the credit because her grandson claimed she made it first. Had any grandchildren of the other flag makers made the claim we'd be visiting their homes in Philadelphia and passing on their legend instead. However, Ross gets the credit and until some evidence arises that she didn't make the first flag she will continue to get the credit. But one can say even though she doesn't deserve it, Ross is still a great piece of legend that surrounds the American Revolution still some 237 years later.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi Mike,

    In May of 1776, Washington consulted with the continental congress in Philadelphia for a period of roughly 2 weeks. His wife accompanied him for this duration.

    "Had any grandchildren of the other flag makers made the claim we'd be visiting their homes in Philadelphia and passing on their legend instead."

    George Ross and George Read were relatives of John & Betsy Ross. Each were closely connected to George Washington during this window of time. Agreed that we only have correlations, although there are some strong potential links that should not go unnoticed. Thanks for the post. -- William

  3. Thanks! You have been the most help to me so far. I know that Betsy Ross did not make the first flag but, a lot of people think she did.

  4. I've learned quite a lot about who made the first American flag. But I found your article is best

  5. Nice Post, Thanks For Sharing...The majestic California State Bear California flag was originally created in 1846 to represent the revolutionary forces in northern California and their rebellion known as the "Bear Flag Revolt”.

  6. Thank You ! this is really informative .. Thx for all your research !

  7. There is no evidence to conclusively credit the crafting of the flag to any one person. The fact that there is no definitive documentation on the matter does actually strengthen the argument that a woman may have played a significant role, as women were rarely recognized in society for their contributions in those days. Also, it is more likely that a woman, doing the work of a seamstress, would have had a hand in the design. It is certainly plausible, though not proven, that Betsy Ross could have been engaged for some part of the work. Her husband's uncle, George Ross, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a close associate of George Washington during this time, which lends some credibility to the account that is being disputed. Did it happen exactly as we hear it told today? Perhaps not. We do know that Francis Hopkinson's claim in 1780, seeking credit for the flag, was rejected by the Board of Treasury because it was reasoned that "the flag was a collaborative effort and that Hopkinson was not the only person who contributed to the design". So why is there no clear record as to who was involved in the creation of the flag? Maybe because the credit largely does belong to a woman.