Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Betsy Ross created the first flags for the new nation in Philadelphia.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Ross was born on January 1, 1752, as Elizabeth Griscom. Born in Gloucester City, New Jersey, Griscom spent the majority of her life in the "City of Brotherly Love." Griscom attended Quaker schools that shaped her into the famous seamstress who created the first American flag. She married John Ross, and they began an upholstery business based on Ross's needlework skills. After his death, she married Joseph Ashburn. After her Ashburn died, she married once more to John Claypoole. After his death, Ross spent the rest of her life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and she died on January 30, 1836.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Ross was born on January 1, 1752, in Gloucester City, New Jersey. She was the eighth of seventeen children of Samuel and Rebecca James Griscom. Griscom's father operated the building business established by her great-grandfather, Andrew Griscom. She attended a Quaker public school as a girl. During her eight-hour school day, Griscom learned how to read and write. At her school, she received the foundation for becoming the legendary seamstress she is remembered as today. However, the Quaker church disowned Griscom when she eloped to marry her first husband, John Ross. He was not a Quaker and Ross's parents disapproved of him.
After the ceremony, John and Betsy Ross opened an upholstery and sewing shop in Philadelphia. In 1775, John Ross was in the state militia and was tragically killed in an explosion of gunpowder on the wharf that he was patrolling. After his death, Betsy Ross continued operate the business.
Betsy Ross' legend was told to only her grandson, William Canby, when Ross was eighty years old. Her grandson relayed all current records of Ross' involvement with creating the American flag. Canby said that in June 1776, General George Washington and a secret committee from the Continental Congress, later identified as George Ross and Robert Morris, assembled to create the first American flag. They went to Ross' upholstery shop, and Washington gave her his sketch. Ross was approached for her skill, as well as her relationship to George Ross, Betsy Ross' uncle who had signed the Declaration of Independence. Ross did not agree with the proposed design of the flag, and she became the mother of our nation's "stars and stripes" by changing Washington's proposed six-pointed star, to a five-pointed star to show American independence. Betsy Ross believed that America should use new imagery, and with one single snip of scissors, she revealed a perfect five-pointed star. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the stars and stripes as the flag of the United States of America.
The question as to whether or not Betsy Ross really sewed the first American flag is still being investigated. Historians debate the facts and assumptions in order to discover what really happened. As discussed in Jodie Gilmore's article entitled "Betsy Ross: A Just Sew Story," the facts are: she ran an upholstery shop, her shop made flags for the US government until the mid-1800s, she was widowed three times, and she was a determined patriot. As the story is told, Ross suggested changing Washington's proposed six-pointed star to a five-pointed star. She convinced him that the five-pointed star was easy to make, and she also recommended the flag be rectangular as opposed to square, which would allow it to stream better in the wind and to increase its visibility.
However, it is tough to determine the validity of her story because unbiased historical sources remain silent on the subject. As Lindsey Galloway reports in the U.S. News and World Report, historians tend to agree that Francis Hopkinson, naval Board chairman and co-designer of the nation's Great Seal, likely designed the first flag. Gilmore holds that "George Washington's letters indicate he was immensely interested in flags, and thought a national flag important 'for the better discipline among the troops.'" Washington's letters, however, never mention a visit to Betsy Ross' shop to ask her to sew the flag. Betsy Ross' grandson, William Canby, told his family story in 1870 at a meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Joined by several of Ross' close relatives, he stated the facts that Washington visited Ross and that Washington gave her a design. Finally, Canby told the society that Ross made some suggestions for change, and he claimed that the flag was accepted after being run up the flag pole of a ship at the Delaware River docks.
Over the years, many anti-Ross arguments were made debating the issue. Something that is suspicious is that Congress did not adopt the flag until a year after Washington's supposed visit to Ross. However, people often wonder why it took a year to decide on adopting the flag. Other critics argue because Canby was told the story when he was eleven years old, he may be unable to reliably remember the story. Proponents countered this by saying that Alexander Hamilton was a captain in Washington's army at eighteen years old. Finally, historical paintings depict evidence that supports both sides of this argument. Also, Charles Wilson Peale's George Washington at the Battle of Princeton that commemorates the battle that took place on January 3, 1777, has a flag in the picture that is certainly an early version of Old Glory. This explains the fact that less than a year after Washington's visit to Ross, a model of the flag was made and at a battle. Secondly, Colonel Trumbull's "General Washington at the Battle of Trenton," depicts the stars and stripes flag flying behind Washington. Although these paintings do not prove that Betsy Ross sewed the American flag, they do prove that the flag existed before the Flag Resolution of 1777. We will never know for sure if Betsy Ross really sewed the first flag, but we do know that she was a dedicated patriot who wanted to aid her nation.
The day after the flag was adopted, June 15, 1777, Ross married Captain Joseph Ashburn. In her second marriage she had two daughters. Ashburn served in the military as the first mate of the brigantine Patty, and the British Navy captured his ship. Ashburn died in the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England, in early 1782. John Claypoole brought the news of her husband's death to her. Claypoole was a lifelong friend of both Betsy and her previous husband Ashburn. Their friendship grew, and they eventually married on May 8, 1783. Returning to her Quaker roots, Ross and her husband joined the Society of Free Quakers. The two continued to run the upholstery shop before his eventual death in 1817. Together, Claypoole and Ross had five daughters.
After her third husband's death, Betsy Ross lived the remainder of her life with one of her daughters while she continued to work in her shop until 1827. Before her death, she turned over her business to her daughter. On January 30, 1836, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Betsy Ross died at the age of eighty-four. She is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia. Today, the house where she may have made our nation's first flag is a historical landmark.
"Betsy Ross." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.