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Betsy Ross and the American Flag

Felicity Grant -- A common practice among Americans celebrating Independence Day each July 4th is to display an American flag because it is a symbol of freedom and liberty, which the United States promises in the Bill of Rights and proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately there are many controversies surrounding the creation of the first American flag. At the center of these controversies is a woman named Betsy Ross. Read more about the design of the first American Flag in American History magazine.

The story of Betsy Ross making the first American flag for General George Washington probably entered into the American conscious about the time of the 1876 Centennial celebrations, according to research. In 1870 Ross's grandson, William J. Canby, presented a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in which he claimed his grandmother had sewn the first flag of the United States. The historic episode supposedly occurred in late May or early June 1776, a year before Congress passed the Flag Act. Canby's account gained wide circulation; however independent research throughout the years has failed to establish documented proof. Many historians doubt its authenticity. Read more about the controversies surrounding Canby's paper in the Smithsonian magazine.

Although it is known that Betsy Ross made flags for the government during the American Revolution, no conclusive evidence exists that she made the national emblem adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777.

Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 1, 1752. After she finished her education at a Quaker public school, her father apprenticed her to an upholsterer named William Webster. While working for Webster Betsy Ross fell in love and eloped with fellow apprentice John Ross. Shortly after their marriage the young couple started their own upholstery business; they later had two children.

By the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775, the Ross's were struggling financially and so John Ross joined the Pennsylvania militia; he was killed in January 1776. After his death, Betsy Ross joined the "Fighting Quakers" which, unlike traditional Quakers, supported the war effort. It was during this time after her husband's death that Betsy Ross, according to her family history, met with George Washington and two signers of the Declaration of Independence, George Ross and Robert Morris, at her upholstery business to discuss the sewing of the first United States flag.

While evidence of this meeting is insufficient, there is enough hard evidence that shows Betsy Ross did make flags for the government; this hard evidence includes a receipt for the Pennsylvania Navy in May 1777.

Ross continued working in her upholstery business, including making flags for the United States of America, until 1827. After the death of her second husband, Joseph Ashburn, she married John Claypoole in 1783; the couple had five daughters and was married until 1817 when Claypoole died. After her retirement, Ross's daughter continued to operate the upholstery business. Ross died in Philadelphia on January 30, 1836, at age 84.

Despite the shaky evidence that Betsy Ross was the first sewer of the United States flag, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in 1952 to honor the 200th anniversary of her death. The stamp portrays Betsy Ross presenting a flag to George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross.

Felicity Grant is a freelance writer in Atlanta. For more, visit

© 2009 Felicity Grant

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