The Story of the Betsy Ross Flag
In the summer of 1776 (or possibly 1777) Betsy Ross, newly widowed, is said to have received a visit from General George Washington regarding a design for a flag for the new nation. Washington and the Continental Congress had come up with the basic layout, but, according to legend, Betsy allegedly finalized the design, arguing for stars with five points (Washington had suggested six) because the cloth could be folded and cut out with a single snip.
The tale of Washington’s visit to Ross was first made public in 1870, nearly a century later, by Betsy Ross’s grandson. However, the flag’s design was not fixed until later than in 1776 or 1777. Charles Wilson Peale’s 1779 painting of George Washington following the 1777 Battle of Princeton features a flag with six-pointed stars.
Betsy Ross was making flags around that time—a receipt shows that the Pennsylvania State Navy Board paid her 15 pounds for sewing ship’s standards. But similar receipts exist for Philadelphia seamstresses Margaret Manning (from as early as 1775), Cornelia Bridges (1776) and Rebecca Young, whose daughter Mary Pickersgill would sew the mammoth flag that later inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Betsy Ross: Later Life, Work, and Children
In June 1777, Betsy married Joseph Ashburn, a sailor, with whom she had two daughters. In 1782 Ashburn was apprehended while working as a privateer in the West Indies and died in a British prison. A year later, Betsy married John Claypoole, a man who had grown up with her in Philadelphia’s Quaker community and had been imprisoned in England with Ashburn. A few months after their wedding, the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Revolutionary War. They went on to have five daughters.
Over the next decades, Betsy Claypoole and her daughters sewed upholstery and made flags, banners, and standards for the new nation. In 1810 she made six 18-by-24-foot garrison flags to be sent to New Orleans; the next year she made 27 flags for the Indian Department. She spent her last decade in quiet retirement, her vision failing, and died in 1836, at age 84.
Betsy Ross: A Legacy Unfurled
The records of the U.S. flag’s origins are fragmentary in part because at the time Americans were indifferent to flags as national relics. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written in 1812 but did not become popular until the 1840s. As the 1876 U.S. Centennial approached, enthusiasm for the flag increased.
It was in that environment, in 1870, that Betsy Claypoole’s grandson William Canby presented the family tale to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. At the time several claims on the first flag were surfacing, ranging from other Philadelphia seamstresses to a New Hampshire quilting bee said to have fashioned the banner out of cut-up gowns.
Most such stories, however wishfully sourced, expressed a national desire for symbols of female Revolutionary patriotism, of women materially supporting their fighting men and (just perhaps) showing George Washington a better way to make a star.