The story goes that Betsy Ross, a young widow, made the first American flag in June 1776 after a visit from General George Washington.
Besty’s grandson was the first to tell this story in recollections published in 1873. He claimed that in June 1776, George Washington, Robert Morris, and her husband’s uncle, George Ross, visited his grandmother in her shop in Philadelphia. The men had brought a rough sketch of a striped flag with thirteen stars in a blue field. The stars had six points. Having a better idea, Ross folded a piece of paper into neat triangles, and “with a single clip of the scissors” produced a five-pointed star. Within days, the story goes, Betsy Ross had completed the first American flag.
Today most scholars agree that it was probably not Betsy Ross who made the first “Stars and Stripes” American flag. However, Betsy was without dispute a flag-maker who, records show, was paid by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board in 1777 for making “ship’s colours, &c.” Despite the lack of evidence for the story for which she is known, Betsy Ross was also certainly a patriot, as well as an example of what many women of her time audaciously and courageously endured, and her story and her life are stitched into the fabric of American history.
Born on January 1, 1752, Elizabeth Griscom, called Betsy, was the eighth of 17 children born into the Quaker family of Samuel and Rebecca Griscom. Her father was a successful carpenter, who moved his large family from their farmhouse in New Jersey to Philadelphia when Betsy was three years old.
After completing her formal education at a school for Quaker children, Betsy went on to apprentice to John Webster, a talented and popular Philadelphia upholsterer. She learned to make and repair curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas and Venetian blinds.
While apprenticing to Webster, Betsy fell in love with a fellow apprentice named John Ross, the son of the Assistant Rector of Christ Church. Betsy’s family did not approve of her relationship with an Anglican or marrying outside their Quaker faith. On November 4, 1773, Betsy and John eloped. Despite being cut off from Besty’s family, the newlyweds prospered, soon opening their own upholstery business.
They were married for just over two years when their union was tragically cut short. John Ross, a member of the local militia, passed away, leaving Betsy a widow at the age of 24. Betsy continued to run her upholstery business, making extra income by mending uniforms and making tents, blankets, cartridges, and, of course, flags for the Continental army.
On June 15, 1777, Betsy married her second husband, Joseph Ashburn. Joseph was a mariner and was often at sea, leaving Betsy, a new mother, alone in Philadelphia. In 1780 a British frigate captured Joseph’s ship. The crew was charged with treason and taken to Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. While Ashburn was imprisoned, his and Betsy’s first daughter died at only nine months old and their second daughter was born. Joseph died before the British released the American prisoners in 1782.
Later in 1782, still grieving from the death of her first child, Betsy was visited by an old acquaintance named John Claypoole. He was a fellow prisoner and close friend of Joseph Ashburn. John was there to bring Betsy the news of her second husband’s death. Betsy learned that she was once again a widow at the age of 30. John Claypoole and Betsy rekindled their old friendship and were married on May 8, 1783.
Betsy had a lengthy marriage to John Claypoole, but this relationship was not without its struggles and tragedies. The couple had five more daughters together, but only four of them lived to maturity. In 1793, Betsy’s mother, father, and sister died within days of each other from the yellow fever, leaving Betsy to raise her niece. In 1812, Betsy and John’s widowed daughter Clarissa moved into their home with her five young children and a sixth on the way. Once again, Betsy had a full house of children to care for. The children were not the only members of the household who needed Betsy’s attention. For nearly 20 years, John Claypoole was disabled as a result of his Revolutionary War injuries. He died after a lengthy illness in 1817.
Following John’s death, Betsy continued her successful upholstery and flag-making business with the help of her daughter Clarissa. After over fifty years in her trade, she retired at the age of 76.
By 1833, Betsy was completely blind. She spent the last three years of her life living with her daughter Jane’s family on Cherry Street in Philadelphia. With family present, Betsy Ross died peacefully in her sleep on January 30, 1836. She was 84 years old.
Even if Betsy did not make the first flag — even if the visit by George Washington never happened — Betsy Ross was an example of what many women of her time found as their reality in time of war and revolution: marriage, widowhood, single motherhood, managing her household and business, caring for infants and invalids, and a deep involvement in and commitment to her community and nation even while being denied many of the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.
Her life represents a triumph of determination, optimism and patriotism during the formative years of our country.
On this Flag Day, she is a woman worth remembering and worth celebrating.
For more information, a great place to look is The Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. A recent well-reviewed book about Betsy Ross is “Betsy Ross and the Making of America” by Marla R. Miller.