Mini American flags, giant American flags, American flag cakes, American flag sunglasses, American flag suspenders, American flag coolers, American flag bathing suits. This week is the 4th of July and that means we’re about to be inundated with American flag paraphernalia through week’s end, but before you take a sip out of that drink in your American flag coozie, we’re taking a moment to stop and appreciate the lady who made it all possible.
Betsy Ross is widely credited with designing and constructing the first American flag, but here are eight things you might not know about this star-spangled leading lady of the American Revolution.
Well, not exactly, but she had met the then-head of the Continental Army prior to his asking her to craft the first flag of the new nation. They both attended Christ Church in Philadelphia where Betsy Ross’ pew was directly next to that of George and Martha Washington. Ross’ daughter would later remember, "that she was previously well acquainted with Washington, and that he had often been in her house in friendly visits, as well as on business. That she had embroidered ruffles for his shirt bosoms and cuffs, and that it was partly owing to his friendship for her that she was chosen to make the flag."
When Ross completed her schooling at the near-by Quaker public school, her father apprenticed her to a local upholsterer where she fell in love with fellow apprentice, John Ross. The two eloped, causing a rift with her family and her expulsion from her Quaker congregation.
Ross’ first husband, John Ross, was a member of the local militia and left with the army when the American Revolution broke out, two years after the couple were married. The exact nature of his death is unclear, but legend says that he was assigned to guard a stockpile of munitions and was killed in a freak explosion, though his family disputes this story. In 1777, Ross married her second husband, the sailor Joseph Ashburn. But three years later, his ship was captured by the British. He was charged with treason and imprisoned in England, where he eventually died due to illness.
The legend goes that Colonel Carl von Donop, a Hessian colonel fighting on the side of the British, was distracted and delayed from sending reinforcements to the Battle of Trenton because he decided to spend Christmas Eve with “a beautiful young widow.” That beautiful young widow is widely believed to be the young Betsy Ross, recently widowed by her first husband. When the dust cleared on the Battle of Trenton, nearly the entire Hessian force was captured, with only small losses for the American forces. The battle was later made famous by Washington’s daring winter crossing of the Delaware River, but he was certainly aided by Von Donop’s delay in coming to aid the Hessian forces at Trenton — a delay that we can theoretically credit to Miss Betsy Ross.
At 24, widowed by her first husband, Ross reportedly struggled to make ends meet with her upholstery business, but was at least in part rescued by a surge of business from the Continental army for which she mended uniforms, tents, blankets, and stuffed small cartridges with musket balls. Though in the end, her business survived for many years after the war ended.
Legend says that before formally asking her to create the first flag, George Washington showed Ross a rough design for the flag, featuring six-pointed stars. Ross argued in favor of a five-pointed star instead, which were easier to make, showing him how to cut a five-pointed star with a single snip of her scissors.
While Ross claimed that representatives from the Continental Congress asked her to craft the first flag in the spring of 1776, the notion that she made the first American flag is still a matter of dispute by historians. In 1870, more than thirty years after Ross’ death, her grandson presented a letter to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania claiming that his grandmother had in fact made the first American flag. Over time Ross grew into the stuff of legend and was promoted as the iconic image of a patriotic woman’s contribution to the Revolution. But historians argue that even if Ross’ story is true, she was only one of a handful of flag makers working in Philadelphia at the time. Her only unique contribution would have been the design of the five-pointed star.
Ross’ remains were moved several times in the two centuries since her death. Though initially buried in the Quaker cemetery on North 5th Street in Philadelphia, her remains were later moved to Mt. Moriah Cemetery. Many years later, in preparation for the Bicentennial of 1976, the city asked that her remains be moved to the Betsy Ross House, but workers found no bones under her tombstone. They later found bones in another section of the family plot, and presuming them to belong to Ross, moved them to the Ross House where thousands of tourists visit them every year.