Most people know Betsy Ross (1752-1836) as the person who made the first United States flag, but this may not be true. The classic story of the widow who sewed George Washington’s flag originates with her descendants over a hundred years later, and there is no hard evidence to support the claim. However, Betsy Ross is still a remarkable figure intertwined with the creation of the American flag, and there are many fascinating facts about her life.
The legend goes that George Washington, along with George Ross and Robert Morris, members of a committee established by the Continental Congress, visited Betsy Ross' house in Philadelphia in 1776 with a sketch of the flag that they wanted made. The flag featured thirteen alternating red-and-white stripes and thirteen six-pointed stars in a circle on a field of blue. The story goes that Betsy suggested using five-pointed stars instead, as they would be easier to cut out.
The legend that Ross sewed (and perhaps even helped design) the first United States' flag has no proof to substantiate it. The first verifiable account that she did so was a research paper written by Ross’s grandson, William J. Canby, and presented to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870. He cited his aunt Clarissa as his source, saying she told him the tale in 1856.
The trail stops there. Betsy Ross certainly sewed flags for the new United States; she even kept a receipt from the Continental Congress for flags she sewed for the Pennsylvania Navy in 1777. As to whether she sewed the first Stars and Stripes, or whether that storied meeting with George Washington ever happened, all we can say for sure is that there is no evidence of it.
Even if she was not the seamstress responsible for the most famous of American cloth, Betsy Ross is a historical figure in her own right. The following is a list of unique, substantiated facts about Betsy Ross. They should give you an idea of who she really was and what her life might have been like during the tumultuous years of the America Revolution.
- Elizabeth "Betsy" Griscom was born on January 1, 1752, and lived in Philadelphia for most of her life.
- She was the eighth of 17 children and was raised by her mother and father.
- Ross was raised as a Quaker by her parents and continued observing the faith throughout her life.
- She began sewing as a child; her great aunt Sarah Griscom taught her. Betsy later apprenticed for an upholsterer named William Webster. During this apprenticeship, she met her future husband John Ross.
- John Ross was not a Quaker, which meant that Betsy was forced to elope in order to marry, since she was considered to be moving outside of her church. They ran away to New Jersey to marry. Betsy was 21 years old at the time.
- John Ross, an upholsterer by trade, died in 1777. Betsy took over the business and remained a professional upholsterer and seamstress for the rest of her life.
- Ross married a total of three times and was widowed each time. She married mariner Joseph Ashburn in 1777, but he was captured by the British Navy in 1780 and died a prisoner of war. Finally, she married John Claypoole, who died of natural causes in 1817.
- Betsy Ross was the mother of two daughters with her second husband, and the mother of five daughters with her third husband.
- She continued to run her upholstery business until the late 1820s. In 1810, she made six 18-by-24-foot garrison flags to be sent to New Orleans. Afterward, she was commissioned to make 46 flags for American military garrisons and 27 flags for the Indian Department.
- She died on January 30, 1836, at the age of 84.
- Betsy Ross was originally buried in Philadelphia at a Quaker burial ground. Twenty years later, her remains were removed from their original location and placed in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia.
- In 1975, a year before the United States bicentennial, arrangements were made to have the remains of Betsy Ross removed from the cemetery in Mt. Moriah and placed in the Betsy Ross House courtyard: this was where she supposedly lived while making the first American flag. Her remains were not found at Mt. Moriah. Investigation of the family plot near her last home revealed remains believed to be hers. These were reinterred at the Betsy Ross House, where they remain today.
With little evidence for or against the story, the patriotic tale of the hardworking seamstress keeping her family business going in difficult times and supporting the war effort still warms American hearts. While we may never know if she actually made the first flag of the United States, we do know some important facts about Betsy Ross that may give us an insight into the role of women in Revolutionary America.
For more fascinating insight into this remarkable woman, take a look at YourDictionary’s Betsy Ross Timeline.