On June 14, 1777, the flag purportedly created by Betsy Ross was officially adopted as the national flag. Although refuted by most historians today, legend has it that George Washington commissioned Ross to make it. Despite the lack of supporting evidence, the story of Ross stitching the nation’s original flag remains woven into the fabric of the American story. Ross is viewed as a patriotic role model and a symbol of women’s contributions to the founding of America. As we celebrate Flag Day every year on June 14, we also honor the life story of Ross and her wartime sacrifices.
Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom in Philadelphia, PA in 1752. She grew up in a tight-knit Quaker community. After completing school, her father sent her to an apprenticeship at a local upholsterer’s shop, where she met and fell in love with a fellow upholsterer, John Ross. She was expelled from the Quaker community when she married John, who was an Anglican.
On the eve of the American Revolution, the Rosses opened their own upholstery shop. Sadly, John was killed by a gunpowder explosion while on militia duty in 1776. The heartbroken widow inherited their upholstery business and dedicated herself to making flags for the Pennsylvania army. In 1777, Ross remarried a sailor named Joseph Ashburn. Tragically, he became another casualty of the Revolutionary War. Ross ended up marrying her third and final husband, John Claypoole, in 1783. As fate would have it, she first met Claypoole when he delivered the sad news about her second husband’s death.
Ross passed away on January 30, 1836, at 84 years old. Several decades after her death, Ross’ grandson, William Canby, began telling the legendary story of the creation of the Betsy Ross Flag. His account was eventually published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1873 and taught to millions of schoolchildren for over a century. According to Canby, three men – George Washington, Robert Morris, and her late husband’s uncle, George Ross – visited Ross in June 1776. They allegedly commissioned her to sew what became the first official flag of the United States. After sharing a sketch of a flag with thirteen red and white stripes as well as thirteen six-pointed stars, Ross agreed to match the design. Her only change was that she would make each star have five points instead of six. However, aside from Canby’s account of this story, there is no concrete evidence that this meeting ever happened.
Whether the Betsy Ross story is folklore or not, her name will forever be associated with America’s first flag. Today is Flag Day, so let’s wave the flag in honor of all Americans who sacrificed for our great democracy, including women like Ross.