Maker of America’s First Flag
There has been much controversy over the years as to who indeed make the first American Flag. While attempts have been made to disprove it, it is generally accepted by most Americans that the first American Flag was fashioned by Betsy Ross. While there is no historical record of Mrs. Ross being commissioned to made the first flag, there is a strong verbal record, handed down from generation to generation, beginning with Betsy’s own family.
Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom in Philadelphia, Pennyslvania on January 1, 1752, the seventh daughter, and eighth child of the seventeen children born to Samuel and Rebecca James Griscom. Her grandfather, Andrew Griscom emigrated from England to New Jersey in 1680 and later became aquatinted with William Penn and helped him to found the city of Philadelphia, moving there to be a part of William Penn’s Quaker community dubbed the “holy experiment”. Andrew was a respected carpenter, as was his son. It is commonly accepted that Betsy’s father, Samuel assisted in the construction of Independence Hall. Her mother, Rebecca James, was the daughter of a wealthy importer.
Being Quakers, the Griscom’s strongly believed in the equality of women. Because of this, they provided their children, including their daughters, with a good education. In her youth Besty attended Rebecca Jones School for Quakers, which had been chartered by William Penn. Along with her education, she was taught needlework at home, becoming very skillful. As a teenager, she was an apprentice at an upholstery shop owned by William Webster. While today we think of upholsterers primarily as sofa-makers/recoverers, etc., in colonial times they performed all manner of sewing jobs, including flag-making.
Betsy was an attractive girl and had many suitors. But it was while working in the upholsterer’s shop that Betsy met and fell in love with another apprentice, John Ross, who was the son of an Episcopal assistant rector at Christ Church. At twenty-one, Betsy decided to marry John Ross, against the wishes of her parents. Though he was a Christian, Ross was not a Quaker and Betsy was warned not to marry “out of the meeting”, meaning she was not to marry a man other than another Quaker. Quakers frowned on inter-denominational marriages, and the penalty for such unions was expulsion – being emotionally and economically cut off from both family and meeting house.
Regardless of the consequences, in November of 1773, John and Betsy secretly rowed across the Delaware River in the dark so they could be married in New Jersey. When the news of the marriage reached her parents, the Griscom’s disowned Betsy. In addition, the Quakers publicly excommunicated her. Despite all this, the couple was happy and found a spiritual home at Christ Church.
In 1774, the Rosses opened their own upholstery business at Arch Street. By this time, the rebellion against England was gaining momentum, and Betsy and John were strong American patriots and supporters of colonial rights. Ross’ uncle, George Ross, began recruiting male Philadelphians for a militia, and John became a guard of the ammunition stores along the Delaware River near his home. In mid-January 1776, John Ross was mortally wounded when the gun powder he was guarding exploded. While the young Betsy did her best to nurse him back to health, John died on January 21, 1776.
Betsy became a widow at age twenty-four, after just three years of marriage. This was a trying time for the young girl. Not only was she widowed, but she had also been cut-off from her family because of their choice to marry outside her denomination. but instead of attempting to return to her father’s house, Betsy decided to continue their upholstering business, maintaining her independence and her strong colonial sympathies.
Tradition holds that about five months later, in June of 1776, Betsy Ross received a visit from a secret committee sent by the Continental Congress that was authorized to design a flag for the nation-to-be. The committee included George Washington, commander-in-chief of the colonial army, Col. George Ross, Betsy’s uncle by marriage, and Robert Morris, a wealthy businessman. They asked that Betsy make the flag according to a rough drawing they carried with them. She consented to attempt the work after suggesting some slight changes, one being a star of five-points instead of six. Washington redrew the flag design in pencil in her back parlor and Betsy spent the next few days sewing the flag in her home.
When she was finished, she called for the committee who took it to the State House where Congress approved the design. While the committee had gone to other seamstresses, Betsy Ross’ flag is the one the Continental Congress decided upon, and they gave her a standing order. She continued making flags for the United States Government for the next fifty years.
Betsy Ross was a mere 25 when she sewed the country’s first flag. She was a fine young woman, who was well educated and had a practical knowledge of science and medicine. She was also a zealous patriot for the American cause, continuing to stand up for colonial rights to the extent that when British soldiers took over her house during their occupation of Philadelphia in 1777, they nicknamed her “The Little Rebel”.
In late 1777, Betsy remarried. Her new husband, Joseph Ashburn, had been a suitor of hers from her youth. Though she gave birth to two daughters from this marriage, she only had a few years with Joseph. A soldier with the American forces, he was taken prisoner by the British in 1781. For several long months, Betsy went without news of her husband, but kept herself busy with her business, her daughters, and her service to the army (making quilts and blankets). She also left Christ Church and joined a new group of Quakers called Free Quakers, that supported the Revolution. They were a great help to Betsy during this trying period.
In March of 1782, Joseph Ashburn died in an English prison. Upon his release from the same prison, a friend and fellow prisoner, John Claypool, called on Betsy to deliver a farewell message from her late husband. Ironically, Claypool had also courted Betsy before her marriage to John Ross and within a year, on May 8, 1783, they were married.
The Claypool’s had five daughters and a full life. Along with John’s job with the U.S. Customs House, they were busy running the upholstery business, raising their family, and attending Free Quaker meetings. However, around 1800, John Claypool suffered a devastating stroke requiring almost constant nursing. He lived for 17 years and died at age 65 in August, 1817.
Betsy Ross led a full life, giving her life to her family, her work, and her service to her country. In 1827 Besty retired from the upholstery shop, leaving it to one of her daughters. She lived with different children during the next 9 years, continuing to sew, but this time for her family. She went totally blind in 1835 and died on January 30, 1836.