There’s good reason why Pennsylvania not only recognizes Independence Day as a national holiday, but also Flag Day as a state holiday. It ‘s all because of that Elizabeth Claypoole. Mrs. Ross, to you.
Like Plymouth Rock and George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, the tale of Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag was played-out in streets and on stage in patriotic parades and pageants, and part of civics class recitations in schoolrooms across the land for a century or so, starting in the Gilded Age. Then, around about the Acquisitive Eighties, reality really took hold and faced the facts that the whole Betsy-Ross-sewed-the-first-flag story was likely a myth.
Good luck reminding the good people in the city of Brotherly Love about that. Right now, they’re ringing up the cash registers in Pennsylvania. Kids are out of school and family vacations are underway. Senior citizen buses are clogging the interstates. Historical re-enactors are dusting off their tri-cornered hats and polishing up their silver shoe buckles. It’s high season in the Keystone, the sweet spot between Flag Day and Independence Day, the best time to sell tour tickets, reproduction Declarations on brown parchment, and flags, flags, flags. The Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia gets over a quarter of a million tourists in and out of its tiny rooms each year. It’s right up there with the Liberty Bell. Keep your Santa Clauses, December. July is hot times for Betsyabilia.
Whether she made that flag – or didn’t.
There really was a Betsy Ross, but only for four years.
She was born Elizabeth Griscom on New Year’s Day in 1753, in New Jersey, eighth of seventeen children, daughter of a Quaker carpenter, but he moved the family into Philadelphia by the tim she was three. While apprenticing as an upholsterer, she met and married fellow apprentice John Ross in 1773, son of the assistant rector of the Episcopalian Christ Church. They opened their own upholstery shop, turning out curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas, venetian blinds and other cloth-items, living and working from a small, rented brick house on Arch Street. A local militia member in the fight for colonial independence from England, John Ross was killed during a gunpowder explosion, leaving 24-year old Betsy a widow.
Mrs. Ross needed extra work to survive. And there was work to get – if she was willing to do it all rather subversively in a city rife with British Army soldiers and many Philadelphians still loyal to England. There were the new Continental Army uniforms to be produced, tents to be made, and blankets to be sewn.
On June 15, 1777, just one day after the flag she was said to have designed was officially adopted as that of the fledgling nation, still at war, she married again, to merchant marine Joseph Ashburn. He as captured at sea and died in an English prison, leaving her with a baby daughter.
She married a third time, to John Claypoole, in 1783. They had four daughters who lived to adulthood. By the time their second one as born in 1785, they needed more room and thus vacated the Arch Street house where Betsy had first moved to with John Ross. In 1795, she adopted a niece and then, further, took in a widowed daughter and her six children. Her husband died in 1817. Despite increasing blindness, she continued to labor at her trade until she was 76 years old, then lived with her daughter Susan, outside of Philadelphia. She moved back to town, with her daughter Jane , three years before she died at 84 years old in 1836.
Those are the basic facts of the real-life Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole.
For the next thirty-four years, the only people who knew or cared much about this so-called “Betsy Ross” were her aging daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren.
Until that is the day when one of them decided to get all of them to tell the world all they didn’t know about her.
In 1870, her grandson, William J. Canby was the first person to come forth to state that during the brief four years when she was “Mrs. Ross,” she “made with her hands the first flag.” The announcement of this historically momentous claim was all laid out in his formal address to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. “It is not a tradition,” he wrote a year later, when the story’s truth was first questioned, “it is [a] report from the lips of the principal participator in the transaction, directly told not to one or two, but a dozen or more living witnesses, of whom I myself am one, though but a little boy when I heard it.”
Only 11 years old when his grandmother had died, Canby claimed to later learn the details as a young adult from his aunt, Clarissa Sydney Wilson, some twenty years after Betsy Ross’s death.
According to the family, in the spring of 1776, a committee of three men, General George Washington, financier Robert Morris and Philadelphia civic leader George Ross paid a call on Betsy Ross at her upholstery shop. Out of his jacket pocket, Washington pulled a sketch of a flag pattern, with thirteen red and white stripes and thirteen six-pointed stars, asking if she could sew a flag based on this vision. Betsy responded: “I do not know,” her grandson claimed she replied, “but I will try.”
It was a quoted line also used in the signed and sworn affidavits made by several other family members, either emblazoned in all of their memories, word for word, or coordinated by the kinfolk to seem that way.
And while they might have all been telling the truth about what Betsy told them, there is the possibility of course that she had told them all a big, fat…well, maybe she didn’t remember it all the way it really happened.
Canby’s most loquacious and important testimony was from his eighty-two-year-old aunt Rachel Fletcher who said unequivocally: “I remember having heard my mother, Elizabeth Claypoole, say frequently that she, with her own hands (while she was the widow of John Ross), made the first Star-Spangled Banner that ever was made.”
According to Fletcher, Betsy finished her flag within a few weeks and it was “run up to the peak of one of the vessels belonging to one of the committee then lying at the wharf, and was received with shouts of applause,” then was carried to the Continental Congress, along with the original design for a comparison. The next day, a member came to Betsy Ross’s home with the news that “her work had been approved and her flag adopted; and he gave orders for the purchase of all the materials, and the manufacture of as many flags as she could make . . . from that time forward, for over fifty years, she continued to make flags for the United States Government.”
Mrs. Fletcher also claimed that her mother, having previously made shirt ruffles for General Washington, was confident enough to tell him that the shape of their design was wrong and that the white stars should be organized in a circle, each as a five-point star, not the six-point one they drew. She pulled out her scissors to snip one and show them. Even later, one great-granddaughter suddenly remembered more, claiming that the “Flag Committee” thought that if more states entered the new nation, a new stripe should be added to represent it.
No, no, said Betsy. Just add more stars.
Whoever made whatever flag was the first one, it was officially adopted by Congress on June 14, 1777.
The sole piece of tangential evidence that could somewhat support the claim is a receipt entry dated May 29, 1777, noting that “Elizabeth Ross” was paid for making flags – but for the Pennsylvania State Navy, not the Continental Congress.
Only two years after the story was out, George Henry Preble became the first in a long line of historians dismissing its authenticity, the most recent being a more nuanced and fact-based analysis written five years ago by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her article, “How Betsy Ross Became Famous.”
According to Ulrich, a lot of other seamstresses, upholsters and sewers were flag-making in Philly at the time, like Margaret Manning and Cornelia Bridges, whose name is even recorded as doing so a year before the claim of Betsy Ross doing it. There was also the well-documented Rebecca Young, listed in Continental Army records of the 178os for producing “continental standards” and who advertised in the Pennsylvania Packet that her Walnut Street shop could turn our flags for the Army or the Navy on the “most reasonable Terms.” Before any of these other women were researched and discovered, however, Rachel Fletcher had admitted a century earlier that “other designs had also been made by the committee and given to other seamstresses to make, but that they were not approved.” It at least gives her credence for being honest when she didn’t have to be.
Thirty years after the story broke, an aged descendant of the wife of Connecticut’s Continental Congress representative made a testimonial defense of the Betsy Ross story, recalling that after “George Washington designed and ordered the new flag to be made by Betsy Ross, nothing would satisfy Aunt Rebecca but to go and see it in the works, and there she had the privilege of sewing some of the stars on the very first flag of the young Nation.”
The lack of documentation about Washington, Morris and Ross focusing on a flag seems to debunk the story – except for the fact that if any such record existed of a “Flag Committee” and had been seized by the British, it would convict the members for treason and they would hang. The need for secrecy might also be a reason why Betsy Ross would have kept her flag-making on the QT. Any Royalist neighbor who heard about it could have turned her in for treason in what was still the British colonies.
The family said, in fact, that Betsy Ross did other secret stuff in the basement, assembling cloth-bag ammunition cartridges for the American Revolutionary War soldiers, filling them with gunpowder and musket-balls, and concealing her subversiveness in plain brown-paper, secured with twine. They also said she made venetian blinds and table-coverings for Independence Hall, where the second Continental Congress met and signed the drafted Declaration of Independence.
She definitely knew George Ross very well – he was her uncle-by-marriage. The family’s claim that she also knew George Washington personally is upheld by the fact that he sat in a Christ Church pew which adjoined the one she and John Ross used, his father being the assistant rector there. So, even if she didn’t make the flag, there was a good chance she did embroider his ruffles and cuffs, as the family also claimed.
What doesn’t hold up is the claim that Betsy Ross was responsible for the permanent configuration of red-and-white-stripes with a blue field of white stars. The 1778 statement by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams that the U.S. flag had red-white-and-blue stripes is verified by flags of that era with triple-colored stripes. And a 1779 painting shows stars not with Betsy Ross’s claim-to-fame of five-point stars, but rather six-point stars. But that could have been the artist’s vision.
While nobody can yet prove that Betsy Ross did design and sew the first flag, nobody can prove she didn’t.
Regardless of the truth, the story hit just in time for Philadelphia’s money-making Centennial Celebration, in 1876. Nobody seemed certain of how to sustain this new revenue source based on patriotic tourism, however, once it was 1877.
In true American tradition, it took an enterprising foreigner to get the picture faster than anyone else, and kick it all into high gear.
No sooner had the Ross relatives pointed to the humble little hovel of a decaying urban blight as the place where the first flag was made than the German immigrant TK Munds, living and running a small tavern there, saw the big green. Almost immediately, Meister Munds hung out a sign, blaring his good deal on booze: “Original Flag House, Lager, Wine and Liquors. This is the house where the first United States flag was made by Mrs. John Ross.”
This all proved dreadfully uncivilized for a group of upright citizens who, in 1898, organized themselves into the official “American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association.” They began making patriotic appeals on Betsy’s behalf, culling donations to buy the house away from Meister Munds so it could be gutted of its demon rum connection and gentrified with authentic colonial reproductions, to be opened to the public as a museum – for a modest ticket price, with a tasteful little gift shop room.
The problem was, however, there was nothing but flags to sell to tourists. Maybe some thimbles and needles, but how many of those could be sold?
Only then it seemed to dawn on the Association that nobody knew what Betsy Ross looked like. And they needed a face to put on the legend.
Betsy Ross had been a working-class woman all her life and unlike society’s elite she’d never had her image engraved from an original portrait. She’d never even had her portrait painted. And she was dead before photography came around.
In the finest and oldest of American traditions, this issue was quickly resolved in 1892 when a Memorial Association founding member, Charles Weisgerber unveiled his massive nine feet by twelve feet oil painting entitled “Birth of Our Nation’s Flag.” The canvas shows not only the familiar faces of George Washington and Robert Morris, along with the unfamilar George Ross, but for the first time Americans could look into the saintly and shining face of the prematurely grey-haired 23-year old Betsy Ross as she first presented the first flag to them.
For ten cents a piece, any citizen could get lifetime membership in the Betsy Ross Memorial Association and receive a certificates emblazoned with a black-and-white image of the new painting of the old moment.
For the especially patriotic, however, eager to bundle a group of thirty other new member an form an official “Betsy Ross Club,” would be the prize of a color chromolithograph print of the painting (frame not included).
Weisgerber shipped the massive canvas to the Chicago World’s Fair, where millions could oh-and-ah over it. Betsy got big and was getting even bigger. In 1894, the Colonial Dames marched out some five hundred schoolkids just before summer vacation, for the first known public ceremony hailing Betsy Ross. Five years later, as part of the festivities honoring Admiral Dewey in his naval victory over the Spanish in Manila Bay, there was a genuine Betsy sighting, a scene in a patriotic pageant depicting her sewing the first flag. Soon enough, her grave was being decorated with flower wreaths.
In 1898, Weisgerber moved into the Betsy Ross House and stayed for thirty-four years, supporting his family from the stuff they sold in the first-floor gift shop they established there and tickets to see the room behind it, where Betsy met with Washington and it all started.
Three years after he left, the old place looked pretty shabby. A radio station owner paid for the entire renovation, including a restroom made from authentic Revolutionary War era bricks. It opened on Flag Day, June 14, 1937.
Four years later, two adjoining buildings were bought and torn down to make way for the Betsy Ross Garden. Eventually, descendants donated many items which the real woman used, including her clothing chest, some chairs, her spectacles, Bible and a petticoat.
Yet still, some final touch seemed to be missing. In fact, it was Betsy herself.
Betsy Ross had first been buried in a Quaker cemetery on South Fifth Street in Philadelphia, and rested there for twenty years. In 1856, for some unspecified reason, her coffin was exhumed and moved to Mt. Moriah Cemetery, in Yeadon, Pennsylvania. There she rested in peace, again this time for 120 years. Getting ready for its biggest blowout birthday bash ever, the 1976 American Bicentennial Celebration, a committee of powerful Philadelphians decided it just had to bring Betsy home. Thus, Betsy Ross was dug up again, and moved to a courtyard plot right next to the Betsy Ross House, as if to ultimately legitimize the story.
When Elizabeth Claypoole’s tombstone was lifted, however, there was one, very big problem.
There was n box of Betsy bones.
No matter. The months were ticking down to the Bicentennial and Philadelphia city was rushing to get everything in place – including Betsy Ross.
Some other, nearby bones in the family plot were dug up, “deemed to be hers,” and trucked on over to the new “old” gravesite of beloved Betsy Ross in time for the state holiday of Flag Day, on June 14, just two weeks from the 200th Independence Day.
For some two generations now, after taking their ticketed tour of the Betsy Ross House and lingering long in the gift shop, tourists have been posing solemnly for snapshots in front of the sacred site where the one and only Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole is buried.
If there’s any doubt that the American public has always wanted to believe in Betsy, than a look back at a century’s worth of American manufacturers’ efforts to help them believe, through this bountiful bonanza of Betsyabilia, will leave no doubt.
- Betsy Ross had 3 husbands, and other flag facts (cnsnews.com)
- Betsy Ross Had 3 Husbands, and Other Flag Facts (abcnews.go.com)
- The Mythology of Betsy Ross and the American Flag (bigscoutproject.com)
- Guide To The Betsy Ross House (philadelphia.cbslocal.com)
- Flagging the Lost Holiday that Was Today & A Gallery of past Flag Day Joys (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Philadelphia and The Fourth of July Celebrations (socyberty.com)