By Marcus Fisk
Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.
U.S Congress, 14 June 1777
ALEXANDRIA, VA- Flags have been a big deal in history. They identified nations, told you who the good guys and the bad guys were on the battlefield, and became the rage for patriotic parades, sports events, political campaigns, and protests.
June 14 is Flag Day in the U.S., proclaimed by President Harry Truman in 1949. Before that the flag of the United States could be best described as an exercise in artistic American freedom.
Popular culture says that Betsy Ross “designed” and sewed the first “American” flag. Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole was a real American go-getter. Raised a Quaker, she attended a “Friends” (read: Quaker) school and was also taught a trade. After her schooling, Betsy’s father apprenticed her to a local upholsterer, sewing materials for furniture, as well as other sewing jobs such as flag making.
One day while threading a needle, she met and fell in love with John Ross, another apprentice upholsterer. On a November night in 1773, the two crossed the Delaware River and eloped in New Jersey at (appropriately) Hugg’s Tavern 1). Her Quaker parents were against her marrying outside the faith and, as John was the son of an Episcopal assistant rector, Betsy was “read out” of the faith and cut off from all spiritual benefits.
The happy couple started their own upholstery business but the Revolutionary War really put a dent in fabric availability, so John, in a lightning strike of Revolutionary spirit, enlisted in the Pennsylvania Militia to get a regular paycheck. As fate would have it, assigned to handle an ammunition cache, John Ross was a casualty when the ammunition cache exploded. Despite Betsy’s great nursing efforts, John Ross died of his wounds in January 1776.
The good news was that John and Betsy Ross were well connected. George and Martha Washington were members of Christ Church in Philadelphia where Betsy and John hung out in the next pew. Martha even commissioned Betsy to sew George’s ruffles and sleeves and do occasional alterations for him.
In May 1776, General George Washington and Congressmen Robert Morris and George Ross (John’s uncle) paid a visit on Betsy to ask her to sew a flag for the fledgling Army. It seems that the flag Washington had been using looked a tad too much like the British Flag, with the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew up in the corner. It confused everyone and people were getting killed. Sure, there was a war on but with money being tight, uniforms tended to be improvised and no one knew for sure who was who on the battlefield (2).
So Washington asked Ross to try making a flag, something with stripes representing the 13 colonies and a field of stars denoting a “new constellation” in the world, that Congressman Francis Hopkins had sketched out on the equivalent of a revolutionary bar napkin.
Being a widow with little business coming in the door and time on her hands, Betsy told the delegation she’d give it a shot as long as she could change the six-pointed stars to five, five being much easier to sew. Being Congressmen and thinking they were onto big savings with five-point stars, Ross and Morris hurried off all smiles and Washington returned to the front with the news: no, the uniforms haven’t arrived, but the Army was going to get a new flag.
Betsy came up with a flag of thirteen stars in a blue field and thirteen red and white stripes. The flag would become known as Old Glory, by William Driver, a sea captain from Massachusetts.
In June 1777, Betsy married again, to Captain Joseph Ashburn, a seafaring man who was captured in the West Indies by the British for ferrying munitions to the Continental Army. Captain Ashburn was sent to Old Mill Prison in England, where he died in March 1782, several months after the British surrendered and the war was over.
John Claypoole, a friend and fellow prisoner of Ashburn personally delivered the news of Ashburn’s demise to Betsy. This certainly could have disheartened any gal, but not the Unsinkable Betsy Ross, who went on to marry again. And wouldn’t you know it—three times a charm—she and Claypoole tied the knot in 1783 and went on to have five children.
The Betsy Ross story may be merely folk legend started by her progeny, and there are questions about the validity of her story. Several women who were Ross’s contemporaries also made flags for this country, and many more may have been relegated to the back pages of history.
Rebecca Young was the seamstress who made the first Continental flag and Navy Ensign in 1775. And it was Rebecca’s daughter, Mary Young Pickersgill, who designed and sewed the 15-starred and 15-striped flag that, in 1814, flew over the garrison at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In 1912, things settled down to 48 stars when New Mexico and Arizona became states.3 Finally, in 1960 when Alaska and Hawaii came on board,4 we arrived at that magic 50-state version of the flag. It even flies in our territories like Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico5.
The farthest from our shores where Old Glory flies, however, are the six left on the surface of the moon by the Apollo Astronauts. But that’s a story for July’s Zebra: the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.
1) This was back in the days when New Jersey was trending. The Delaware River was wildly popular and pre-dated Niagara Falls as a newlywed “must see” destination. That local knowledge from a Philadelphia Regiment helped General George Washington, who crossed it on a cold December night to catch the British Army napping on Christmas Eve.
2 )You’d think that flaming red British uniforms could be seen for miles but Army recruiters weren’t that discriminating and being colorblind wasn’t a disqualifier back then.
3) Until then folks just thought they were already in Mexico. That “territory” thing we did for decades was very confusing. Some folks used to just walk back and forth, and Spanglish was the official language of the territory.
4) We’re still not quite sure how we acquired them. Alaska is hundreds of miles north of our northern-most border and surrounded by Canada. Hawaii was a complete mystery since it is nowhere near anything vaguely “American.” It was supposedly discovered by Captain Cook, but I think it was really discovered by United Airlines.
5) Originally made famous by West Side Story but now known for Hurricane Maria and Bounty Paper Towels.