It seems like a simple question, but if you dig deeper you’ll find the truth is shrouded in a bit of history, mystery and legend. I’m going to present the stories of two important American historical figures who are said to have played a key role in the creation of the first American flag. There is no ‘correct’ answer to this question and historians have competing theories to this day. Let us know who you think is most responsible for the first American flag!
Let’s go back to the 1700s; Great Britain just raised taxes on the colonies to increase revenue for the King. The colonies are outraged by this action, calling the taxation unfair. This led to the creation of the Continental Congress, and in 1776 the American loyalists had enough and soon declared independence from Great Britain.
During this time in the Philadelphia area, not far from the Continental Congress, two figures lived who played key roles in our first flag. A young seamstress known for her upholstery business, where she mended uniforms, flags and other clothing and a man known as a poet, artist and civil servant who was one of the 56 men to sign the Declaration of Independence.
The Legend of Betsy Ross
In Betsy Ross’ early life, her family provided her with the tools and knowledge to be successful later on. On January 1, 1752, Elizabeth Griscom, the daughter Quakers Samuel and Rebecca Griscom, was born. Elizabeth was an apprentice to her father’s friend William Webster and her Aunt Sarah Griscom, learning the family upholstery business. During this time she would meet with husband John Ross.
At the age of 21 she was married, but many in her close-nit Quaker community were not pleased. This created a split in her relationship with her family and ultimately her expulsion from the Quaker community. She and her husband started their own upholstery business and joined Christ Church, where George Washington was among their fellow congregants. Her husband died during the Revolutionary War. While she eventually remarried, her second husband was a mariner who was imprisoned in England and charged with treason, eventually succumbing to illness. Finally, she had 5 daughters with her third husband, and worked in her upholstery business until her retirement.
In 1870 her grandson William Canby, in a paper almost 100 years later to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, claimed his grandmother "made with her hands the first flag." He argued that his grandmother, Betsy Ross, was acquainted with General George Washington. Often she repaired his uniform and other belongings. As the story goes, one day three men from the Continental Congress secretly met with her to discuss making a flag. General Washington pulled a sketch from his pocket, showed it to her and requested that she create a flag from the design. Betsy felt the sketch that had some flaws, so she made a few alterations they all would agree to, creating the Betsy Ross flag.
Some have doubted the Besty Ross legend; do to lack of specific and concrete historical evidence.
Next week we’ll explore the story of Francis Hopkinson and try to uncover the true creator of the first American flag.