Betsy Ross & Our Flag
Perhaps the best-known figure from the American Revolutionary era, who wasn’t a president, general or statesman, was
Elizabeth Griscom, better known to all as Betsy Ross. She was born on January 1, 1752, in the bustling colonial city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; to Samuel and Rebecca James Griscom. Betsy, as she preferred to be called, was the eighth of seventeen children.
Betsy grew up in a Quaker family, with a long line of craftsmen in her linage. He father was a carpenter who built houses. As a child she attended a Quaker school, where she apprenticed under the watchful eyes of William Webster, an upholsterer. It is in his workshop that she learned to sew mattresses, chair covers, and window blinds.
While apprenticing with Webster, Betsy met a fellow apprentice named John Ross. So in 1773, at the age of 21, Betsy crossed the river to New Jersey to elope with her John. He was the son of an Episcopal rector, which was a double act of defiance by Betsy, which brought about her being expelled from the Quaker church.
Together, John and Betsy, started their own upholstery shop, however he ended up joining the militia. Only after a little over two years into their marriage, he died by unsubstantiated circumstances, leaving her as a widow.
Now in the summer of 1776 or 1777, and newly widowed, it has been said that Betsy received a visit from General George Washington. Being noted as a fine seamstress, he desired for her to design a flag for the new nation. General Washington, and the Continental Congress, had come up with a basic layout on what they wanted. She argued with Washington over the stars for the flag. He wanting a six-pointed star, and she wanting five points. Her reasoning was that the cloth could be folded and cut out with a single snip. It is said that Betsy was the one who finalized the design.
However, when looking at the Charles Wilson Peale’s 1779 painting of George Washington, after the 1777 Battle of Princeton, the flag features six-pointed stars. (If this is the painting they are referring to, I'm unable to tell if they are 5 or 6 pointed.)
It seems that back during the Revolutionary war, there were several seamstresses who were working on flags. A receipt from the Pennsylvania State Navy Board shows they paid Betsy 15 pounds for sewing ship’s standards. However, similar receipts still exist for other seamstresses in Philadelphia. Such as Margaret Manning in 1775, Cornelia Bridges in 1776, and a Rebecca Young, whose daughter Mary Pickergill sewed the mammoth flag that later inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” So who actually was the seamstress that worked on our first flag? Her name is not a verified fact. But let’s just say it’s Betsy Ross, and let it go at that.
In June of 1777, Betsy married Joseph Ashburn. He was a sailor, and the father of two daughters. However, this one too ended in sorrow. Joseph was a privateer in the West Indies, and died in a British prison.
A year later Betsey married again, and this time it was to John Claypoole. A man Betsy knew from her childhood in the Philadelphia’s Quaker community. John had been imprisoned in England with Ashburn, but survived the harsh treatment they had received. Shortly after their wedding, the Treaty of Paris was signed, thus ending the Revolutionary War. Their marriage was blessed with five daughters.
During the Revolutionary war Betsey, when not sewing, would make lead balls for the muskets used by the Patriot Militia. It was her way of helping to rid our country of the British.
For over the next decades, Betsy and her daughters sewed upholstery, and made banners, flags and standards for the new nation. In 1810 she made six 18' X 24' garrison flags to be sent to New Orleans. During this time she also made 27 flags for the Indian Department. At the end of her life, with her vision failing, she spent her last days living in quiet retirement. She died in 1836, at the age of 84.
The Betsy Ross House
When entering the Betsy Ross House you will be able to go back in time, and visualize her quietly sewing, or in the evenings preparing lead balls in her fireplace.
You will also notice how small her home was, especially compared to the lavish conditions portrayed in so many paintings. In truth, you could have fit her home into the room depicting her showing the newly made flag to General George Washington and the others. But artist and time has a way of embellishing the truth, just to make it a little more exciting.
While in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, be sure to stop in for a visit at the Betsey Ross House. You will be glad that you did.
Click on the Liberty Bell to return to the 1776 page.