We’ve all been told for years that Betsy Ross designed and sewed the first-ever American flag, with its 13 stripes and 13 stars arranged in a circle on a blue field. As we’ve always heard it, Betsy was presented with a sketch of that flag design by General George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross, and she then began the cutting and stitching to create the flag we’ve all become so familiar with.
But is that really how it all happened?
This story was first made public by her grandson, William Canby, in a presentation to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870. This story was backed by affidavits and was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1873. Historians have pointed out problems with Canby’s account, however:
- No records of the Continental Congress indicate a committee to design a national flag in 1776. The earliest document regarding a national flag was the Flag Resolution of 1777.
- No diaries or letters from Washington, Ross, Morris or any other members of Congress discuss a national flag in 1776.
- Washington was a member of the Continental Congress; however, he became Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1775, making it unlikely that he would have been involved in a congressional committee the following year.
Adding to the mystery that surrounds the making of the first American flag, at least 17 other flag makers and upholsterers worked in Philadelphia during the period. To confuse matters more, as late as 1779 the War Board of the Continental Congress had not settled on what the Standard of the United States should look like. This committee solicited opinions from Washington and suggested a design that included a serpent.
Francis Hopkinson is sometimes credited for the Betsy Ross design and other flags that featured 13-star arrangements. In fact, in 1780 Hopkinson wrote a letter to the Continental Board of Admiralty asking for compensation for his designs, but his claim was turned down on the basis that others had contributed to his work.
Like with so many things in history where all the principals are long dead, it’s unclear as to whether Betsy Ross was responsible for the first flag. One thing is fairly certain, though – the original design called for six-pointed stars, which were changed to five-pointed stars since those were just simply easier to cut and sew. Historians believe that red and blue were chosen for the flag thanks to the relative colorfastness of the indigo and cochineal dyes, as much as for the symbolism of the colors. It’s also been noted that alternating red and white stripes were featured on the 1765 Sons of Liberty flag, and that Abraham Markoe’s Philadelphia Light Horse Troop flag featured 13 silver and blue stripes in 1775.
We hope you found this discussion of vexillology and American history interesting. Let us know how you think the first American Flag was designed and made in the comment section below!