Elizabeth Griscom Ross (1752-1836), was a Philadelphia seamstress, married to John Ross,
an upholsterer who was killed in a munitions explosion in 1776. She kept the upholstery
shop going and lived on Arch Street, not too far from the State House on Chestnut,
where history was being made almost every day. According to most historians, she has
been incorrectly credited with designing the first Stars and Stripes.
The story has enormous popularity, yet the facts do not substantiate it.
Lets begin with the legend itself.
George Washington was a frequent visitor to the home of Mrs. Ross before receiving
command of the army. She embroidered his shirt ruffles and did many other things for
him. He knew her skill with a needle. Now the
General of the Continental Army, George Washington appeared on Mrs. Ross's dooorstep
around the first of June, 1776, with two representatives of Congress, Colonel Ross and
Robert Morris. They asked that she make a flag
according to a rough drawing they carried with them. At Mrs.Ross's suggestion,
Washington redrew the flag design in pencil in her back parlor to employ stars of
five points instead of six. ("Her version" of the flag for the new republic was not
used until six years later.)
This account of the creation of our first flag was first brought to light in 1870
by one of her grandsons, William J. Canby, at a meeting of the Historical Society
of Pennsylvania. This took place 94 years after the event supposedly took place!
Mr. Canby was a boy of eleven years when Mrs. Ross died in his home.
In the many years since the story was told, numerous historians have conducted
vigorous searches into extant government records, personal diaries,and writings
of Washington and his contemporaries and none of them have been able to verify the
claims of Canby.
One verifiable fact is this; the minutes of the State Navy Board of Pennsylvania
for May 29, 1777, say in part "An order on William Webb to Elizabeth Ross for
fourteen pounds twelve shillings, and two pence, for making ship's colours,&c,
put into Richards store". The minutes show that Elizabeth Ross made ship's colors
for Pennsylvania state ships.
Some of the facts, among others, that have been discovered by this research that
cast doubt on
Canby's claim are these; He asserted that the stars and stripes were in common if
not general use soon after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, nearly a year
before the resolution of Congress proclaiming the flag. There is no
record of the flag being discussed or of a committee being appointed for the design
of the flag in either the Journals of the Continental Congress or the diaries and
writings of Washington around this time. Meetings with Colonel Ross and Robert
Morris cannot be
documented. Further, it is illogical to assume that Washington was present at the
alleged meeting with Betsy Ross on the design of the flag when it is known that
he wanted a national standard made for the use of the army in 1779.
But I think that the question that begs to be asked is; Why have so many generations
of Americans come to accept this legend as fact?
After Canby's death, a book written by his brother George Canby and nephew Lloyd
Balderson was published in 1909. The book, The Evolution of the American Flag, presented in
more detail the claims for Betsy Ross made by William Canby in 1870. Among other
things, the authors describe the formation of the Betsy Ross Memorial Association, and
reproduced a painting by Charles H. Weisgerber depicting the
alleged meeting of the committee of Congress with Betsy Ross. The picture, entitled
Birth of Our Nations Flag, is actually a composite portrait made up of from pictures
of her granddaughters and other decendants. The artist took liberties with history
by painting the stars in the flag in a circle. This painting, incidently, stirred
a great deal of public interest in the subject when it was first exibited, at the
Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Following this, money to purchase the
Betsy Ross house in Philadelphia was raised by selling ten-cent subscriptions to the
American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial Association, incorporated in 1898. Each
contributor received a certificate of membership that included a picture of the house,
her grave in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, and a color reproduction of the
Weisberger painting. This campaign gave the legend wide publicity and the Weisberger
painting was reproduced in school history textbooks thoughout the United States!
In the days of Betsy Ross we did not have the benefit of a frenetic press corps
to witness, probe, and record the events of the day. Careful historians do not
accept the legend and neither should we. At the same time, there often seems to be
a wistful regret, best expressed, perhaps, by President Woodrow Wilson when asked
his opinion of the story. He replied, "Would that it were true!"
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