who sewed the first american flag

Who Sewed the First American Flag? Unraveling the Betsy Ross Controversy and Legend

Have you ever wondered about the origins of the American flag and its iconic stars and stripes design? Who constructed the very first version of the flag as we know it, establishing its lasting symbolism? Could it have been the legendary Betsy Ross, seamstress of the fledgling nation?

The Enduring Legend of Betsy Ross Sewing the First American Flag

The popular story of Betsy Ross creating the first American flag in 1776 on General George Washington’s request is deeply rooted in the history of American nationalism. As the tale goes, Ross was an upholsterer in Philadelphia who was commissioned by General Washington himself to sew the first flag promoting the unity of the thirteen American colonies. While historical proof remains elusive, the Betsy Ross narrative retains strong resonance as a founding myth about the first American flag taking shape.

Indeed, oral histories from Ross’ descendants contend that General Washington, along with Betty Ross and other Continental Congress members George Ross and Robert Morris, visited her upholstery shop near Independence Hall and asked her to sew the first flag. Betsy Ross had already known George Ross as the uncle of her late husband, John Ross. According to the Passed Down accounts, Washington showed Ross a rough design, which she adapted to create the first thirteen-star flag, sewing the stars in a circle to represent unity.

The Betsy Ross tale has spawned iconic paintings like Edward Percy Moran’s “Birth of the Flag,” which visualizes her sewing that pivotal first US flag. Ross’s legacy has been honored through the American Flag House museum within her former Philadelphia upholstery shop, as well as many schools and monuments bearing her name. The Delaware River is crossed by the Betsy Ross Bridge, and various US Navy ships have been named in her honor.

Betsy Ross is officially recognized by the State of Pennsylvania as the creator of the first flag. Flag Day itself on June 14th also emerges from celebrations started by Ross’s supposed great-grandson William Canby, who revived her historical memory in the 1870s. So, while definitive proof is still uncertain, the first sewing of the American flag is widely attributed to Betsy Ross owing to the popularity of the account.

Lingering Questions About the Veracity of Betsy Ross’s Role

However, many flag history experts still debate Betsy Ross’s actual role in crafting the first American flag. In their analysis, there is no reliable evidence or documentation from the period officially confirming Ross sewing the initial American flag in 1776 at George Washington’s request. There are also no records of the Continental Congress ever officially adopting an American flag design.

Instead, the first written accounts of Betsy Ross making the first flag only surfaced decades later from her grandson William Canby and other descendants aiming to memorialize her legacy. One primary competing claim comes from Congressman Francis Hopkinson, who consulted with the Second Continental Congress on designing early American seals and symbols like the flag. There is concrete evidence that Francis Hopkinson helped design such Founding emblems, while Betsy Ross’s role remains mostly verbal legend passed down by family stories.

Nonetheless, despite the lack of official historical verification, Betsy Ross remains the prime candidate in American lore. Perhaps more crucially for national identity, the idea of an ordinary working woman sewing the first flag appeals as a grassroots, homemade origins story for the nation. Whether fact or enduring fiction, the account of the modest upholsterer Betsy Ross becoming the first flagmaker fired early American nationalism and its symbols.

The Meaning Behind the Star and Stripes Takes Shape

The Meaning Behind the Star and Stripes Takes Shape
Photo credit: pexels

Before the adoption of the current thirteen-stripe, fifty-star American flag, earlier variants like the “Grand Union flag” incorporated the British Union, Jack. However, after declaring Independence in 1776, a new flag was needed to symbolize the United States as separate from Great Britain. The origin of the idea for thirteen stripes of red and white, representing the original colonies, seems to have been firmly established in the Continental Congress, although its development was gradual.

The initial version of the Stars and Stripes American flag was likely commissioned by the Continental Congress at George Washington’s urging by mid-1776. Though the designer is uncertain, the thirteen stars and stripes became charged with representing the spirit of liberty and unity between the emerging states in the fight for Independence. The specific origins of the iconic circle of thirteen five-pointed stars are variously attributed to Betsy Ross and Francis Hopkinson in consulting with Congress delegates like George Washington and Robert Morris.

Eventually, on June 14th, 1777, the Second Continental Congress officially resolved that the national flag would have thirteen alternating red and white stripes along with a “union” of white stars in a blue field, reflecting the equal unity of the fledgling states. The first Navy ships were soon authorized to fly the new flag by 1778. While the designer remained ambiguous, the stars and stripes motif itself lived on as the enduring symbol of American Independence and identity.

Through various acts of Congress, more stars got added as new states joined, resulting in the current 50-star flag adopted in 1960. But the original 13-star motif remains immortalized as the “Betsy Ross flag” representing American patriotism. The symbolism of the thirteen stripes signifying the first states and the thirteen stars representing their heavenly destiny has become as iconic as the nation itself.

Ongoing Controversy Over Credit for the First Flag

Despite her fame, Betsy Ross’s legacy still provokes debate between devotees and doubters about whether she genuinely sewed the earliest surviving flag. Primary dissent comes from self-proclaimed flag expert Marc Leepson, author of “Flag: An American Biography.” In his research, Leepson uncovers substantial claims that Francis Hopkinson should be considered the designer of the first flag as he sent a letter in 1780 requesting payment from Congress for helping design the “Flag of the United States.”

Conversely, supporters of Betsy Ross, like Pennsylvania State Historian William J. Canby, counter that Hopkinson’s letter exaggerated his role and that no such payment was made. Moreover, as Ross’ great-grandson, Canby based his 1870 accounts of her role on a reliable family oral tradition inherited down generations. The debate continues between Leepson’s demand for government proof versus faith in Canby and Ross’s descendants’ stories.

Adding another wrinkle, recent scholarship by American Revolution scholar Grace Rogers Cooper holds that though the Stars and Stripes motif itself may have deeper origins, the first physical thirteen-star flag was made in 1792 by flagmaker Margaret Manny, who received payment from President George Washington. Yet because knowledge of Manny’s contribution was obscured over time, the legend of the more nationally appealing self-taught seamstress Betsy Ross has persisted.

So, while the historical record remains incomplete, the idea of Betsy Ross as the pivotal popularizer of the flag’s early design holds iconic status. Perhaps more important than its factual veracity, the first flag-sewing story promotes national unity and identity during the uncertainty following the Revolution when lack of governmental coherence threatened to dissolve the fragile republic.

Why Do So Many Still Credit Betsy Ross After All?

Despite debates on the true origins, Betsy Ross endures proudly as a household name representing American resilience because we want to believe that one of our own citizens birthed the nation in her Philadelphia workshop. Though elites like Washington and educated men like Hopkinson contributed to American freedom enormously, the emotional appeal of a humble working widow and mother taking the stars and stripes from concept to creation resonates more stirringly.

Whether she physically stitched the earliest surviving thirteen-star flag with her own hands, Betsy Ross gave it life through a memorable story of leadership collaborating with ordinary people to forge national symbols. The uncertainty itself adding to her mystique, Ross wove the fabric that draped a fledgling union of states in the ideals that computation has come to define America both to its own people and the outside world.

So next Independence Day, when the flags fly high, consider both the famous figures and forgotten laborers like Betsy who collectively built American identity. And let the legendarily elusive details surrounding Old Glory’s origin remind us that the country remains a work in progress whose true history is still emerging. As later figures would echo, the Founders declared Independence, but it’s up to citizens in every generation to maintain and strengthen it. And by recognizing ordinary Americans like the apocryphal Betsy Ross in defining moments, we stitch ourselves into the story and ownership of American democracy.


Who was Betsy Ross?

Betsy Ross was an upholsterer in Philadelphia who has been historically credited with sewing the first American flag in 1776 at the request of General George Washington and others.

What evidence is there that Betsy Ross made the first flag?

There is no definitive historical proof that Ross sewed the first flag. The story comes from accounts passed down by her descendants, like grandson William Canby, decades later aiming to enshrine her legacy. However, some historians question the veracity of the oral histories.

So, who is considered the real first flag maker?

While Ross remains the popular figure, some contend politician Francis Hopkinson, who helped design early American symbols, may have crafted the first flag. Others argue that flagmaker Margaret Manny made the 1792 flag that resembles today’s version.

What is the legend’s significance regardless of its factuality?

More crucial than factual accuracy, the accessible Ross story promoted national unity after the Revolution when a lack of governmental coherence threatened the dissolution of the fragile republic.

When was the first official US flag formally adopted?

The resolution passed by the Second Continental Congress on June 14th, 1777, stated that the flag should have thirteen stripes, which would alternate in red and white. The flag would also have thirteen white stars on a blue field, to represent the first states.

How has the design evolved into today’s 50-star flag?

Acts of Congress have added more stars as states joined. The current 50-star flag was adopted in 1960 after Hawaii became a state in 1959. But Ross’s 13-star motif remains iconic.

Final Thoughts

In closing, while we may never have a definitive answer on who physically constructed the earliest symbolic thirteen-star flags, the critical role of Betsy Ross and other early flag makers was sparking wider recognition of the patriotic Stars and Stripes as icons representing freedom and national spirit in people’s imaginations nationwide. Though many contributed ideas informing it, the American flag took flight on its ascent to global renown thanks to early artisans who brought bold new designs to life on cloth in the final push for Independence. And the rest, as they say, is history that awaits our contributions.

So, who do you think made that special first American flag?


Main image: pexels

Priti Nandy
Priti Nandy
Articles: 169

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