Betsy Ross (1752-1836) is, of course, famous for making the first American flag. Born in Philadelphia, she came from a family with 17 siblings and was married three times. A seamstress, she was one of the many artisans active in colonial times. Ross was also a fervent Patriot during the American Revolution. Her first two husbands died during the war, one reportedly from the explosion of a munitions depot, the other of disease in a prisoner-of-war camp in Britain. Her third husband survived the war while serving as a privateer. She was known as a bustling, humorous, intelligent woman.
Ross learned needlework from her mother and sisters and at Rebecca Jones’s school. Though there was no formal apprenticeship for girls, as a teenager, she was taken on at John Webster’s shop. With her husbands, she opened her own shops. Her work came to be much sought after in Philadelphia. Upholstery, as the items she created were called in those times, encompassed many things: curtains, blanket, clothes, pillows, blinds, mattress covers, etc., etc.
It is said that George Washington, George Ross, and Robert Morris, on behalf of the Continental Congress, visited Ross in her Arch Street shop, in June 1776. They brought along a rough sketch of a flag with 13 stripes, alternating red and white, and 13 white stars against a blue background. After she explained that the six-pointed stars they wanted would be difficult to reproduce, she took out scissors and cut a five-pointed star quickly. She also proposed that the stars be in lines, a circle or a star, instead of scattered about, and that the flag be rectangular, not square. They agreed to her version. When her sample flag was hoisted on a ship at a Philadelphia wharf, it was applauded by passersby and then taken to the Continental Congress, who approved it. Unfortunately, however, no proof exists that this story is true. War Department records were burnt in 1800, and no other documentation survives. Ross told the story to her many relatives, who then passed the tale down in her family. William Canby, her grandson, recounted the story to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870. He then recruited Ross’s relatives to swear affidavits that they had heard the story, too. Promoted after the Civil War to encourage nationalism, the legend spread.
Ross came from an old New Jersey and Pennsylvania Quaker family. She attended Friends Public School as well as Friend Rebecca Jones’s school and was a member of Arch Street Meeting. She was also known to have worked with Quaker cabinetmakers Thomas Affleck, Benjamin Randolph and James Claypoole. In 1773, after she married John Ross, an Anglican, she was disowned. In 1781 she began attending the Free Quaker Meeting in Philadelphia. The Free Quakers followed Quaker faith and practice but rejected disownment and supported war in defense of the government. Their Meetings also existed in Massachusetts, Ohio and Maryland. By the 1830’s the Free Quakers had mostly died, joined others churches or rejoined mainstream Friends. A small group does survive in Indiana. Ross was one of the last two members of the Philadelphia Meeting.
I tend to believe that Betsy Ross created the first American flag. She probably knew George Washington, having worshipped at Philadelphia’s Christ Church with him. Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis, George Washington’s step-granddaughter, visited her in 1820, indicating that the Washington family was acquainted with her. Robert Morris was a business partner of John Ross, an uncle. George Ross was another uncle. Evidence does exist that Ross made numerous flags, beginning in the Revolution, throughout the early 19th century and especially during the War of 1812. The story has the ring of truth.