Celebrating Flag Day: Someone, somewhere made the first flag, but was it Betsy Ross?

Digital Originals

“Resolved: that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” Resolution of Continental Congress, June 14, 1777

June 14th is Flag Day, celebrating the day in 1777 when the Continental Congress passed a resolution setting out the basic design of the American Flag. And someone, somewhere, had to make the very first flag, but who?

Elizabeth Griscom Ross, better known to us as Betsy Ross, lived in Philadelphia. She was an upholsterer by trade, which in the 1700s included all kinds of sewing tasks, including making flags.

Then in 1777, it was Betsy who created the very first American flag based on the congressional resolution.

At least, that is the story.

The tale of Betsy and the flag didn’t appear until almost a century after the fact, when William Canby, a grandson of Betsy, presented a report to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in March 1870. Historians have argued ever since about whether the story is made of whole cloth. It resides in that in-between realm of historical maybes, with not enough evidence to either prove it, or disprove it.

“A lot of times when you think about historical figures, it’s very hard to prove what someone did. Did she make the first flag for America? We don’t know,” David Carmicheal, Director of the Pennsylvania State Archives, said. “What we can prove was that she did sew flags.”

The State Archive has over 77,000 boxes of documents, including records of the Revolutionary War-Correspondence, committee minutes, troop muster rolls and business ledgers. Carmicheal presented two ledger books from that time.

One contains an order to Elizabeth Ross “For fourteen pounds twelve shillings and two pence for Making Ships Colours [etc.] put into William Richards store.”

The second book shows the accounting of her actually being paid for her work. Proof Betsy sewed flags, in black and somewhat aged off-white. But…ship colors? Who were they for?

“Many of the colonies had a navy, and Pennsylvania is no exception,” Carmicheal explained.

That’s right, Pennsylvania had a navy. It was a small fleet, only around fifty vessels, and most of them were small gunboats and galleys, carrying but one cannon apiece. Still, they put up a quite aggressive defense of the Delaware River, actually slowing the British advance on Philadelphia before being pushed back by sheer force of numbers.

A set of ship colors for Pennsylvania would actually be three flags. You would have a short, solid red pennant, which would fly from the mizzen. That’s the mast closest to the stern of the ship. Flying from the mainmast would be a long pennant, also red, but with 13 vertical red and white stripes near the mast. Flying from a staff at the stern, the largest, and most interesting, the flag of all-the ensign.

“This one was probably just blue, with alternating red and white stripes in the upper quadrant,” Carmicheal said.

Now, if you visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia someday, be sure to take a look in the courtroom. On the wall, you’ll see an early rendition of the state seal, with a ship flying the ensign Director Carmicheal described.

The original order doesn’t make clear exactly how many sets of ships’ colors Betsy made. As for the payment, we entered fourteen pounds into an online inflation calculator, and it turns out today it would equal about 2,354 pounds, or 3,322.

Today, keep in mind this was for flags stitched entirely by hand.

Betsy Ross would continue to make flags for over fifty years. She died in 1836, at the age of 84. Whether she sewed that first flag or not, the fact that she ran a successful business at a time when women were discouraged from such things makes a very remarkable individual indeed.

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