Betsy Ross: Maker of the American Flag

by Pamela Kline

"I can make a five pointed star in one snip," Betsy Ross commented to George Washington, George Ross, and Robert Morris.

They had met to make the first flag for their newborn nation one fateful day in late May or early June of 1776.

Betsy Ross' Childhood and Marriage

Elizabeth (Betsy) Griscom was born on January 1, 1752 into a Quaker family of 19. After many years in public school during her childhood, her father sent her to apprentice under a local upholsterer. It was at this job that she fell in love with another apprentice named John Ross.

However, because John Ross' family was part of a Christian Church, her parents would not allow the two to be married. Quakers greatly opposed inter-denominational marriages such as this, and it would disgrace her family. One November night in 1773, Betsy eloped with John Ross. Taking a ferry across the Delaware River, they were married in New Jersey.

Before two years passed, John and Betsy Ross started an upholstery business together.

Since Betsy could not rely on her Quaker family to support her anymore, the two went to Christ Church. There, they sat in the twelfth pew regularly, which was adjacent to George and Martha Washington's pew.

Betsy Ross and George Washington

Betsy and John Ross came to know George and Martha Washington as close friends. Betsy would fix George Washington's uniforms for Martha.

When war began to break out in mid-January of 1776, the couple found it hard to continue their fabric business. To help in the war effort, John joined the Pennsylvania militia. He was killed during an explosion. Though Betsy tried nursing him back to health, her attempts were in vain. He died on January 21st.

As a widow, she halfway returned to her Quaker life. Whenever free or fighting Quaker spirits were aroused, she was standing with them fighting.

The First American Flag

Betsy Ross is credited for making the American Flag, though there is still some speculation as to whether or not she was the one who actually did. Oral history passed down through her family claims that not only did she make the flag, but that she made suggestions (such as 5-pointed stars instead of six-pointed) to the pattern that George Washington drew up a sketch in her back room to her specifications.

The flag had alternating red and white horizontal stripes and 13 white stars on a blue background in the corner representing the 13 colonies and the circle to represent the equality of the colonies.

The red is said to represent valor and hardiness, white is for innocence and purity, and blue for vigilance, perseverance, and justice. This is not an official perspective, but Congress' guess when the same pattern of colors was used to make the Great Seal of the United States of America.

Picture of Betsy Ross sewing first American flagBetsy Ross, age 24, sewing the first American flag. She had figured out how to create a 5-pointed star with one snip!

Second and Third Marriages

In 1777, Betsy married again, this time to a sea captain named Joseph Ashburn in Philadelphia During the winter of '77, Betsy was forced to share her house with British soldiers. Meanwhile, the Continental Army was suffering greatly in Valley Forge.

Betsy and Joseph had two daughters, Zilah and Elizabeth. When Zilah died a few years after her birth, Betsy was heartbroken.

Months after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, her husband died while imprisoned by the British. In May 1778, Betsy married the third and final time to John Claypoole, an old friend of hers.

John was convinced by Betsy to abandon the sea life and do something on land. So he agreed to work with her in upholstery.

They had five children, one who died at 9 months. All together, only five of the seven children she bore lived to adulthood.

Betsy Ross' Final Years

When John Claypoole died in 1817 from health issues, Betsy remarried no more. She went on to continue upholstery until 1827. She finally died January 30, 1836.

Since then, her body has been buried in three different locations. A major Philadelphia bridge still stands that was named in honor of what she has done for our nation.

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Deborah Read Franklin

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Deborah Samson

Return to Revolutionary War Women

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