A Brief History of Betsy Ross

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A Brief History of Betsy Ross

The American flag is arguably the most iconic in the world, and for good reason. It has influenced the flag designs of many other countries, most notably fellow democracies like France.

But the American flag didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the product of several designs and iterations, and one woman, in particular, is said to have come up with the final design that was presented to George Washington himself.

That woman was Betsy Ross: an upholsterer who lived throughout the Revolutionary era. Let’s take a brief look at the history of Betsy Ross and examine the legend of her flag design.

Betsy Ross’ Early Life

Although Betsy Ross is best known for something she did later in life, her early life was still fascinating. She grew up during one of the most tumultuous and revolutionary times in history: just a few short years before the first sparks of the American Revolution.

Betsy Ross was born on January 1, 1752, but that wasn’t her initial name; it was Elizabeth Griscom. She was a fourth-generation American, meaning that her great-grandparents were immigrants. In fact, her great-grandfather was a carpenter, originally from England, who came to New Jersey in 1680.

Betsy was also the 8 out of 17 children, so she shared many domestic duties and helped to raise her younger siblings as she grew older.

Betsy was also a Quaker. This meant that she attended various Quaker schools, as well as learned common feminine arts and crafts that were important skills of the day. These included sewing, which would later come to play a major role in her overall legacy.

Betsy Ross’s Relationships

Betsy was 17 when she met an Anglican named John Ross. She was introduced to John Ross via her father, as her father apprenticed her to Ross since he was an upholsterer. She was apprenticed there in order to learn the art of upholstery in the hopes that she would create important goods that the family could sell.

Yet romance blossomed instead. They fell in love rapidly, though they quickly ran into a religious roadblock: Betsy was a Quaker, and Ross was an Anglican. Neither religion looked too kindly on their members marrying outside of their churches.

These restrictions did little to stop Betsy and John, who ran off and married in 1772. Unfortunately for Betsy, she was expelled from the Quaker church, but she was steadfast in her love for her husband.

By working together, Betsy and John were able to open their own upholstery business. Betsy played a key role in the business’s later success thanks to her needlework expertise.

The romantic tone of Betsy and John’s relationship did not continue, unfortunately.

John heroically joined the American militia in 1776, after the Declaration of Independence was sent to Great Britain, and the Revolutionary War began in earnest. Despite his bravery, John died shortly after. Sources are unclear as to whether John was killed in combat or if he died from an illness shortly after enlisting – both fates are considered equally likely by historians.

Regardless, Betsy Ross retained the property and upholstery business that she and John had put together through their own determination and grit. She spent much of her time making flags for Pennsylvania, which was one of the states that had first joined the Revolutionary War.

It’s likely that many of her flags flew in battle throughout the War, though none are known to survive to the present day.

She met Joseph Ashburn a year after John Ross’s death. Ashburn was a sailor who primarily worked as a merchant by ferrying goods between America and Europe. Yet this relationship also met an unfortunate end. 1781 saw Joseph Ashburn captured by the British when his ship was impounded by the Empire. He died in prison the next year, 1782.

Betsy’s previous misfortune in romantic relationships did little to deter her from seeking happiness. In 1783, Betsy met John Claypoole. In a strange twist of fate, Claypoole had been in prison with Joseph Ashburn. He met Betsy because he delivered Joseph’s farewells to her after he was released.

The two married after they hit it off, and Claypoole joined Betsy’s upholstery business, as well as worked on his own projects. This relationship would prove to be the longest-lasting in Betsy’s life. John died 34 years later, in 1817, after a struggle with long-term disability.

The Iconic American Flag

Betsy’s relationships are just one part of her life and the impact she had on her country. Her biggest claim to fame, the flag design meeting that secured her a place in history, took place in the summer of either 1776 or 1777. Historians aren’t quite sure which is correct.

Regardless, Betsy Ross found herself newly widowed after John Ross died. But her life received new energy when she was visited by General George Washington himself. He came to her upholstery business to request a new flag design for the nation he and the other founding fathers were working hard to create.

According to the legend, Washington presented Betsy Ross with a basic design for the new flag. But Betsy herself was the one responsible for adding the finishing touches and refining the basic thematic design.

For instance, Washington suggested that each of the stars on the flag should have six points, while Betsy argued for five. This was pragmatic, as it turned out; Betsy Ross’s flag design with five-pointed stars was able to be folded and cut much more easily, which helped the flag be more quickly delivered throughout the young nation.

This novel piece of American trivia was only unveiled to the public around a century later, in 1870. Betsy Ross’s grandson revealed the story as it was told to him by his grandmother. 

Is the Legend True?

It’s not entirely clear who was truly responsible for creating the first American flag. The official records detailing the supposed meeting with George Washington are nonexistent, so historians really only have the word of the Ross family to go on.

But there is plenty of evidence that Betsy Ross was a renowned seamstress and upholsterer known throughout Pennsylvania. So while it may not be true that Betsy Ross herself actually sewed the first American flag, she may very well have been the person responsible for the final design that made its way to the Continental Army and became iconic with the new nation.

Things are further complicated because the Revolutionary War had a lot of flags flying. In those days, American soldiers would commonly fly state flags or other flags, such as the “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flag.

Still, most historians wouldn’t deny that Betsy Ross’s design is one of the most important in American history.

Betsy Ross’ Later Life

Betsy Ross lived a fulfilling life after meeting John Claypoole and allegedly creating the first American flag. The Treaty of Paris was signed just a few months after their wedding, which signaled the end of the American Revolutionary War. Together, Betsy and John had five daughters, most of whom joined Betsy in her upholstery business.

Together, Betsy and her daughters spent many decades sewing upholstery, flags, banners, and standards for ships for the new American nation. For example, Betsy herself made six massive 18 x 24’ garrison flags in 1810 to be used in New Orleans.

Betsy eventually died in 1836 at the age of 84, which was quite old for people at the time. She had retired a decade prior. All in all, Betsy had an eventful and meaningful life by any reasonable standard. Her story is an inspiring tale of grit, determination, and imagination that we could all stand to learn from.

Summary

Ultimately, whether or not Betsy Ross herself truly created the first American flag is irrelevant. The story itself has gained a life of its own and served to inspire many Americans since her life.

Furthermore, the American flag’s design is phenomenal and resilient in its own right. There’s a reason the basic design has been retained for over 200 years despite numerous additions or minor changes, such as adding more stars to represent new states as they were added to the union.

For now, the story of Betsy Ross and her meeting with George Washington to decide on the design of the American flag remains a touching tale in the annals of American history. We can honor the history of the flag she created by wearing it and displaying it everywhere possible.

So wave your American flags high, and don’t be shy. Don’t be afraid of wearing apparel with American flags, either! It’s a symbol of freedom and justice for everyone, and we hope to continue seeing the American flag fly around the world.

 

Sources

Betsy Ross - Flag, Biography & Children | HISTORY

Betsy Ross and the American Flag: Flag Picture | US History

First American Flag History | Historic Philadelphia

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