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What You Didn’t Know About Betsy Ross

Women in History | July 17, 2019

Living history reenactment of Betsy Ross making of first American flag, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, we honored the American flag for the Fourth of July holiday.  Let's reflect on the woman that, according to tales of the founding of the United States, stitched up the very first flag that would represent our new nation. Ask any school kid and they will tell you that Betsy Ross was that woman, the seamstress that George Washington tasked with sewing the stars and stripes. Aside from that one sewing project, we don’t talk about Betsy Ross and her life. Here’s what you didn’t know about Betsy Ross. 

Sewing the first flag. (history.com)

Her Name Was Elizabeth

Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom on January 1, 1752. From childhood, she used the nickname Elizabeth. From a large Quaker family, Betsy was educated at a Quaker public school that stressed teaching hands-on skills. Most likely, this is how Betsy learned to sew. We do know that after her schooling was complete, Betsy’s father sent her to an upholsterer shop to work as an apprentice. The shop worked on all sorts of sewing projects, even flags. 

When Betsy eloped, she angered her Quaker church. (abcnews.go.com)

She Was Excommunicated

While she was apprenticing at the upholstery shop, Betsy met another young apprentice named John Ross. The two fell in love, but there was one problem. John Ross was not a Quaker and the Quaker denomination frowned upon marrying outside the faith. When the young couple crossed the Delaware River and eloped—marrying in a tavern—Betsy’s family and religious community was outraged. The 21-year old was shunned by the Quakers. 

George Washington commissioned Betsy Ross. (pexels.com)

A Young Widow

When the Revolutionary War broke out, John Ross joined the Pennsylvanian regiment. He was killed in an ammunition explosion in January of 1776. It was a few months later that Betsy met with George Washington and two other gentlemen, George Ross and Robert Morris, to discuss the design for the new flag for the United States. 

Betsy's second husband was captured and imprisoned by the British. (myemail.constantcontact.com)

Married Two More Times

Betsy’s second marriage was to Joseph Ashburn, a sea captain, which took place in June of 1777, in Philadelphia. The couple had two daughters together. After a decade of marriage, Ashburn sailed to the West Indies to get supplied for the war effort. There he was captured by the British and sent to a military prison in England. He died in that prison in 1782. Her third marriage was to a former friend, John Claypoole. Betsy and her third husband had five more daughters together. 

George Washington, George Ross, and Robert Morris were on the committee to create the country's first flag. (ushistory.org)

The Making of the American Flag

When George Washington, George Ross, and Robert Morris called upon Betsy Ross in Philadelphia in 1776 to discuss a flag design, it was because Betsy has a reputation for being an outstanding seamstress. After her apprenticeship at the upholstery shop ended, she and her first husband, John Ross, started their own upholstery shop in Philadelphia. There, they worked on all sorts of sewing projects, from furniture, wagon covers, retail products, and, of course, flags. Betsy Ross was the natural choice for Washington’s important sewing assignment. 

A replica of the Betsy Ross flag (factorydirectcraft.com)

Betsy Used Washington’s Design

Contrary to popular misconception, Betsy Ross did not design the first flag. She used a design that was sketched by George Washington that featured an arrangement of thirteen stars in a circle on a blue background. The flag also had thirteen stripes of alternating red and white. Betsy suggested to Washington that they replace the six-pointed stars from Washington’s design to a five-pointed star. This suggestion was made because, she said, the six-pointed star was too hard to cut out. 

The Betsy Ross House is a popular tourist attraction in Philadelphia. (historicphiladelphia.org)

Where’s the Proof?

Today, it is impossible to know if it was, indeed, Betsy Ross who sewed the first American flag. There are plenty of historians who believe she didn’t make the flag at all. The majority of the evidence we have that point to Betsy Ross come from stories handed down through her family. Yet it is likely that she did the work. She was a highly regarded seamstress. Her husband’s uncle, George Ross, accompanied Washington to meet with her. It is possible that he wanted to throw some additional work toward his nephew’s widow. 

(ushistory.org)

The Flag Is Adopted

Betsy Ross’s flag was officially adopted as the flag of the United States on June 14, 1777, by the Second Continental Congress. Although the original flag no longer exists, there are replicas of it on display at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. 

Tags: 4th of July | American Flag | Betsy Ross | George Washington | independence day | stars and stripes

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.