The Stars and Stripes

Who made the first American flag? Apparently the answer is quite hotly debated, by some. Tradition holds that it was Betsy Ross, and the following, convincing evidence comes straight from the Besty Ross House in Phiadelphia, Pennsylvania.

While there is no doubt that the real Betsy Ross was worthy of interest in her own right, it is the legend of Betsy sewing the first stars and stripes that has made her an unforgettable historical figure.

The Betsy Ross story was brought to public attention in 1870 by her grandson, William Canby, in a speech he made to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Canby and other members of Betsy’s family signed sworn affidavits stating that they heard the story of the making of the first flag from Betsy’s own mouth.

According to the oral history, in 1777, three men-George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross, visited Betsy Ross in her upholstery shop. Washington pulled a folded piece of paper from his inside coat pocket. On it, was a sketch of a flag with thirteen red and white stripes and thirteen six pointed stars.

Washington asked if Betsy could make a flag from the design. Betsy responded: “I do not know, but I will try.”

This line was used in the sworn statements of many of Betsy’s family members, suggesting that it is a direct quote from Betsy.

As the story goes, Betsy suggested changing the stars to five points rather than six. She showed them how to do it with just one snip of her scissors. They all agreed to change the design to have stars with five points.

Despite the absence of written records to prove the story, there are several reasons why historians believe it could be so:

  • George Ross, a member of the Flag committee, was the uncle of Betsy’s late husband, John. This could be one reason why Betsy was chosen to make the first flag.
  • It was common for upholsterers to take up other forms of work during wartime.
  • They were no longer getting their regular upholstery work, so many upholsterers made money by making tents, uniforms, and flags for the soldiers.
  • On May 29, 1777, Betsy Ross was paid a large sum of money from the Pennsylvania State Navy Board for making flags.

On June 14, 1777, Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as our official national flag.

Betsy continued to make flags for the rest of her career.

So, historical fact or well-loved legend, the story of Betsy Ross is as American as apple pie. 

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