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Title: Did Betsy Ross Design the Flag of the United States of America? - Publication of the Scottsville Literary Society
Author: Hanford, Franklin
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Transcriber's Note: Bold text is surrounded by =equal signs.=]


    OF THE


    No. 7.




    By Franklin Hanford.





By Franklin Hanford.


A paper read before the Scottsville Literary Society, January 22, 1917.


On Saturday, the fourteenth of June, 1777, the Continental Congress,
then in session in Philadelphia, adopted a resolution which reads as
follows: “Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States be
thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen
stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

“The Journal of Congress is silent as to the name of the member or
committee that introduced this resolution and neither is there any
record of the discussions that may have preceded the adoption of our
national emblem.” “It is a matter of great regret that no record of
the circumstances attending the birth of the Stars and Stripes has
ever been found,” for we should like to know who designed our present
flag, and also, though a matter of less interest, who made, that is
manufactured, the first one.

Some years ago I happened to see upon the wall at Mrs. Emma H. Miller’s
house in Scottsville, a very attractive picture in colors. This picture
represented General Washington seated on the left and Robert Morris and
the Hon. George Ross standing near him, while, seated on the right, was
Betsey Ross with a =completed= flag of thirteen stripes, and thirteen
stars in a blue field, in her lap. “C. H. Weisberger, Copyright 1903,”
was inscribed near the bottom of the picture. Underneath it was this
legend; “Birth of our nation’s flag. The first American flag accepted
by Congress and adopted by resolution of Congress June 14, 1777, as the
national standard, was made by Betsey Ross, in 1776 at 239 Arch Street,
Philadelphia, in the room represented in this picture. The Committee,
Robert Morris and Hon. George Ross, accompanied by General George
Washington, called upon this celebrated woman and together with her
suggestions, produced our beautiful emblem of liberty.”

The legend under this picture led me to make some inquiries as to
Betsey Ross. Who was she? And did she assist in designing and did she
make the first flag or ensign of the United States of America? If not
Betsey Ross, who did design and make it? Endeavoring to answer these
questions, I have consulted some thirteen works relating wholly or in
part to the flag of the United States. A list of them is appended to
this paper.

Betsey or Elizabeth Griscom was the fifth daughter of Samuel and
Rebecca (James) Griscom and was born January 1, 1752. She was
married when quite young to John Ross, son of the Reverend Aeneas
Ross, an Episcopal clergyman of Newcastle, Delaware, whose brother,
the Hon. George Ross, became one of the signers of the Declaration
of Independence. George Ross was interested in the furnishing of
cannon-balls, with perhaps other military stores for the Colonial
defence, and it was while on guard at night over these, with other
young men, that the nephew, John Ross, Betsey’s first husband, received
an injury from the effects of which he died in January, 1776.

It was during her widowhood that Betsey Ross is said to have made
the first Stars and Stripes. For a second husband she married a
sea-captain, John or Joseph Ashburne, who died in Mill Prison, England,
in 1782. The following year, she married Ashburne’s prison-mate, John
Claypoole, who died in 1817.

Betsey Ross died in her daughter’s home in Philadelphia January
30, 1836, aged eighty-four. She was buried in the Cemetery of the
Society of Free Quakers on South Fifth Street, from which place her
remains were transferred in 1857 to Mount Moriah Cemetery. Four of
her daughters grew up and married. Betsey Ross’ first husband was
an upholsterer. She continued his business and for fifty years was
an expert needlewoman, lace-maker and flag-maker. After her death,
Mrs. Clarissa Wilson, one of her daughters, succeeded to the business
and continued to make flags for the arsenals and navy-yards and for
the mercantile marine for many years. But being conscientious on
the subject of war, Mrs. Wilson gave up the Government business but
continued to make flags for the merchant marine until 1857.

The earliest “History of the National Flag,” of which I have knowledge,
was written by Captain Schuyler Hamilton, U. S. Army, and published at
Philadelphia in 1853, sixty-four years ago. Captain Hamilton makes no
mention of Betsey Ross, and does not give to any one person or group of
persons the honor of designing our flag.

The next “History of Our Flag” was written by Ferdinand L. Sarmiento
and published in 1864, during the Civil War, at Philadelphia.
Sarmiento, like Captain Hamilton, does not mention Betsey Ross and
does not credit the origin of our flag to any one person or to any
committee, or group of persons, but considers honor due to many
individuals who assisted, more or less, in the =development= of our

So far as I can learn, no mention of Mrs. Ross occurs in any history
of our country or in any of the many biographies of Washington, prior
to 1870, ninety-three years after the flag was adopted. In that year,
however, “Mr. Wm. J. Canby of Philadelphia, read before the Historical
Society of Pennsylvania, a paper on the history of the American flag,
in which he stated that his maternal grandmother, Mrs. John Ross,
was the first maker and partial designer of the Stars and Stripes.”
Mr. Canby said that Mrs. Ross received a call in June, 1776, from
General Washington, Col. George Ross, and Robert Morris, who told her
they were a Committee of Congress and wanted her to make a flag from
a rough drawing they had, which drawing, upon her suggestion, was
redrawn by Washington in pencil. This was prior to the Declaration of
Independence. Mr. Canby claimed that he had heard his grandmother tell
the story when he was a boy eleven years old, and that three of Mrs.
Ross’ daughters then living in 1870 and a niece, aged ninety-five,
confirmed his statements.

In the picture I have referred to, Mrs. Ross is represented as having a
=completed= Stars and Stripes in her lap, although, at the time of the
visit of the Committee to her, according to Mr. Canby’s statement, the
flag had not even been designed or manufactured.

The best and most complete “History of the Flag of the U. S. of
America” was written by Rear Admiral George H. Preble, U. S. Navy. The
first edition was published in 1872 and the second, revised, edition,
in 1880. Rear-Admiral Preble gives Mr. Canby’s story about Mrs. Ross
in full, and he considers it probable that Mrs. Ross did manufacture
or have manufactured at different times flags of the United States of
various designs. His conclusion, however, is that “it will probably
never be known who designed our union of stars, the records of Congress
being silent on the subject and there being no mention or suggestion
of it in any of the voluminous correspondence or diaries of the time,
public or private, which have ever been published.”

In 1878, a ridiculous pamphlet was published, entitled “The History of
the First United States Flag and the Patriotism of Betsey Ross, the
Immortal Heroine that Originated the First Flag of the Union. Dedicated
to the Ladies of the United States by Col. J. Franklin Reigart.” This
was published at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

In Reigart’s book, the claim is made that Mrs. Ross “=originated=”
our flag. Mr. Canby, Mrs. Ross’ grandson, had claimed only that she
=manufactured= it and that she suggested some changes in the sketch
shown her by the committee. In Reigart’s book there is a pretended
portrait of Betsey Ross making the first flag. This was really the
portrait of a Quaker lady of Lancaster and was taken from a photograph.
Mr. Canby repudiated Reigart’s book and said he did not correctly
present his grandmother or her claim.

In 1876 Mr. J. C. Julius Langbein wrote a small history of our flag and
he accepts Mr. Canby’s account of Mrs. Ross making the first flag and
suggesting some change in the original design.

Learning that a book entitled “Betsey Ross” had been published in
1901, I procured a copy thinking it biographical or historical but it
proved to be a romance, pure and simple, woven about Mrs. Ross who is
represented as the heroine of her day and the principal designer of the

Since 1891, several small works on the flag have been published,
written by members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and
dedicated to that organization. In those works great honor is given
Mrs. Ross, indeed, the members of the D. A. R. as a whole, seem to
have accepted Mr. Canby’s story as beyond dispute.

In 1908, Mr. John H. Fow published at Philadelphia a book of fifty-four
pages entitled “The True Story of the American Flag.” Mr. Fow devotes
considerable space to the claims made for Mrs. Ross and considers them
without any documentary or record proof. He says, “If Mrs. Ross made
a flag in an Arch Street house as claimed, it was made after a design
that had been conceived and born somewhere else, and her contribution
was no more than the labor that is given by any girl or woman in a
flag manufactory. Even according to the paper which was read (by Mr.
Canby) before the (Historical) Society in 1870, it is admitted that a
design made by someone else was taken to her but that she made some
changes in it. Now,” says Mr. Fow, “that is all there is in the Betsey
Ross claim. Yet the growing youths of the nation are being misled and
taught an historical untruth.” Mr. Fow also says that the Canby claim
“is practically charging Washington and the rest of the Committee with
seeking to establish and set up in June, 1776, a national ensign
before we had declared ourselves a free people on July 4, of the same
year, and without any delegated authority to do so, the record of
Congress being silent on the subject.”

I will not quote further from Mr. Fow’s book, as to do so would
unduly lengthen this paper, but the book itself can be found in the
Scottsville Free Library.

I have lately found in the “Manual of Patriotism for Use in the Public
Schools of the State of New York, Edition of 1904, Compiled, Arranged
and Edited under direction of Charles R. Skinner, State Superintendent
of Public Instruction” the following in relation to the origin of our
flag, “A Committee of Congress accompanied by Washington sought out the
home and services of Mrs. Elizabeth Ross of Philadelphia—better known
as Betsey Ross—to aid them in the flag-making. Her skillful hands and
willing heart soon worked out a plan and gave to this country that
red, white and blue banner which is the admiration of all nations and
the unfailing joy of every true American.” All of which is a very fine
example of what may be called “patriotic gush.”

Here you observe that Mr. Skinner gives Mrs. Ross =all= the credit for
working out and giving us the flag. As it seemed to me that that sort
of history and patriotism is all wrong and as there is, I believe,
no warrant for that statement, I wrote on September 16, 1916, to the
State Superintendent of Public Instruction at Albany, and asked to
be furnished with the authority upon which that statement was based.
A reply came very promptly signed “Wilmer L. Hall, Sub-librarian in
history,” to whom my letter had been referred for reply. Mr. Hall says,
“The statement you quote =may= be based upon one or more of the several
histories of the American Flag. See for example; Peleg D. Harrison, The
Stars and Stripes, 5th edition, 1914., and C. W. Stewart, The Stars and
Stripes, 1915. These accounts do not assert that Betsey Ross originated
the American flag but allow her the credit of making the first one.
=It is said= that Congress appointed a Committee consisting of General
Washington, Col. George Ross and Robert Morris, who called upon Mrs.
Ross and submitted to her a rough drawing of the flag. As the American
flag is a growth rather than a creation, its exact origin is not
determined; =nor is the date of the manufacture= of the first one by
Mrs. Ross and the date of its first use matters of exact knowledge.”

Upon examining the two works referred to by Mr. Hall, I find that Mr.
Harrison says that “the credit of making the first flag combining the
Stars and Stripes is =generally given= to Mrs. Betsey Ross, and the
story of its making is somewhat familiar to all.” Then Mr. Harrison
goes on to give Mr. Canby’s account of what his grandmother told him.

Mr. Stewart in his book says, “=Tradition tells us= that Mrs. Elizabeth
Ross, known as Betsey Ross, of Philadelphia, constructed the first
Stars and Stripes flag. Though we have no official record of the making
of this first United States flag, the accounts given by Betsey Ross’
relatives are =generally= accepted.”

I will here call attention to the use by Mr. Hall, Mr. Harrison,
Mr. Stewart, and other writers of such expressions as “It is said,”
“Tradition tells us,” “It is believed,” “Credit is generally given,”
and so forth and so forth. These expressions are to history what the
expression “they say” in common gossip or talk is to the truth, and are
worth just as much. The fact that a thing is =generally believed= does
not make it true.

Sometime after the receipt of the foregoing letter from Mr. Hall, I
wrote him suggesting that the account given on page 5 of the “Manual of
Patriotism” previously quoted, be corrected to agree with the facts.

It will be noted from the above correspondence that the State
Department of Public Instruction does not now assert, as it did in
1904, that Betsey Ross =originated= the design of the flag for the
United States.

What became of the flag that Betsey Ross is said to have made in June,
1776? In all the engagements that took place between the American and
British troops from June, 1776, to August, 1777, there is no record
in existence, public or private, that the flag claimed to have been
designed by Mrs. Ross in June, 1776, was carried.

The first time that the Stars and Stripes was carried by American
troops was at the battle of the Brandywine, September, 1777.

The Annals of the American Congress do not say that any Committee
was appointed to design the flag. Washington made no note of a visit
to Mrs. Ross’ house, although he was a voluminous letter-writer and
kept most detailed diaries, and his writings do not contain a word
that suggests when the first United States flag was made or designed.
Neither do any of the distinguished historians of the Revolutionary
period give us light on this question. Newspapers of Philadelphia,
issued at that time, did not chronicle any portion of the story as told
by Mr. Canby ninety-three years after the flag was adopted by Congress.
Mrs. Ross did make =State= colors for vessels and batteries prior to
June 14, 1777, but it was not until after the Stars and Stripes were
ordained that she became a Government flag-maker.

The Betsey Ross legend has grown up since 1870 entirely from her
grandson’s statement as to what he and other descendants had heard her
say. This legend is now generally believed and taught in our schools as

The people of our country are very apt at setting up idols of one
kind or another and at manufacturing heros and heroines. That Betsey
Ross was a good woman, and an industrious and competent seamstress is
entirely probable. That she was brave, we may believe,—she married
three husbands!! At all events, we have now Betsey Ross Chapters,
Betsey Ross Auxiliaries, and Betsey Ross this, that, and the other.
And her former home at 239 Arch Street in Philadelphia has been bought
and is preserved by the “American Flag House and Betsey Ross Memorial
Association.” And a large sign across the front reads, “Birthplace of
Old Glory.”

Now with your permission, I will give my own conclusions on the
subject. The evidence that General Washington, Robert Morris and
Colonel George Ross called upon Mrs. Ross in June, 1776, and asked her
to make a flag from a sketch which they showed her, that Mrs. Ross
suggested alterations in the design, which the Committee accepted, and
that she made a flag from the modified design which flag was a year
later adopted by Congress as our national ensign, is entirely =heresay=
evidence. It is based solely on statements by Betsey Ross’ descendants
as to what they =heard= her say. This evidence, I think, would not be
accepted in a court of law, and therefore it is not proved that Mrs.
Ross either designed or manufactured our first flag.

I read a portion of this paper on June 14, 1912, before the Caledonia
chapter of the D. A. R. and asked them this question, Would you admit
to membership in your society a person whose sole claim to membership
was based on what she had heard her grandmother say? The unanimous
reply was that they could not admit such a claimant.

Possibly there may be some better evidence than I have been able to
find to substantiate the claims made for Betsey Ross; but until such
evidence is produced, then the people of our country should be taught
the facts of the case and not a legend as a fact.

The answer, then, to the question propounded at the beginning of this
paper is, that Betsey Ross did not design the flag of the United States
of America.



Did Betsey Ross Design the Flag of the United States of America?

  =Bowson, Elizabeth M. (Mrs. Henry S.)=
    Our Flag, Its History and What It Stands For                     1908

  =Champion, Sarah E.=
    Our Flag, Its History and Changes from 1607 to 1910              1910

  =Fow, John H.=
    The True Story of the American Flag                              1908

  =Hamilton, Schuyler=
    History of the National Flag of the United States of America     1852

  =Hamilton, Schuyler=
    Our National Flag: The Stars and Stripes                         1877

  =Harrison, Peleg D.=
    The Stars and Stripes                                            1914

  =Hotchkiss, Chauncey C.=
    Betsey Ross A Romance of the Flag                                1901

  =Langbein, J. C. Julius=
    The American Flag Its Origin and History                         1876

  =Preble, George Henry Rear-Admiral, U. S. Navy=
    History of the Flag of the United States of America  1st edition 1872
                                                         2nd edition 1880

  =Prescott, B. F.=
    The Stars and Stripes                                            1876

  =Sarmiento, Ferdinand L.=
    The History of Our Flag                                          1864

  =Smith, Col. Nicholas=
    Our Nation’s Flag                                    2nd edition 1908

  =Stewart, Charles W.=
    The Stars and Stripes                                            1915

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber’s Note: Obvious punctuation errors repaired.

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