Elizabeth Phoebe "Betsy" Ross (January 1, 1752 – January 30, 1836), née Griscom, also known by her second and third married names, Ashburn and Claypoole, is widely credited with making the first American flag purportedly in 1776, according to family tradition, upon a visit from General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and changing the shape of the stars he had sketched for the flag from six-pointed to five-pointed by demonstrating on the spot that it was not difficult to cut the latter. However, there is no archival evidence or other recorded verbal tradition to substantiate this story of the first American flag, and it appears that the story first surfaced in the writings of her grandson in the 1870s (a century after the fact), with no mention or documentation in earlier decades.
Early life and family
Betsy Ross was born on January 1, 1752 to Samuel Griscom (1717–93) and Rebecca James Griscom (1721–93) on a farm in West Jersey, Pennsylvania, who moved to Philadelphia two years later. Betsy was the eighth of seventeen children, of whom only nine survived childhood. A sister, Sarah (1745–47), and brother, William (1748–49), died before Elizabeth ("Betsy") was born (another sister, Sarah Griscom Donaldson (1749–85), was named after the earlier deceased Sarah). Betsy was just five years old when her sister Martha (1754–57) died, and another sister, Ann (1757–59), only lived to the age of 2. Betsy also lost brothers Samuel I (1753–56) and Samuel II (1758–61), who both died at age three. Two others, twins, brother Joseph (1759–62) and sister Abigail (1759–62), died in one of the frequent smallpox epidemics in the autumn of 1762. She grew up in a household where the plain dress and strict discipline of the Society of Friends dominated her life. She learned to sew from great-aunt Sarah Elizabeth Ann Griscom. Her great-grandfather, Andrew Griscom, a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a carpenter, had emigrated in 1680 from England.
After her schooling at a Quaker-run public school, her father apprenticed her to an upholsterer named William Webster. At this job, she fell in love with fellow apprentice John Ross (nephew of George Ross Jr, signer of the Declaration of Independence), who was the son of the Rev. Aeneas Ross (and his wife Sarah Leach), an Anglican (later Episcopal) priest and assistant rector at the historic city parish of Christ Church. The young couple eloped in 1773 when she was age 21, marrying at Hugg's Tavern in Gloucester City, New Jersey. The marriage caused a split from her Griscom family and meant her expulsion from the Quaker congregation. The young couple soon started their own upholstery business and later joined Christ Church, where their fellow congregants occasionally included visiting Virginia colonial militia regimental commander, Colonel, and soon-to-be-General George Washington (of the newly organized Continental Army) and his family from their home Anglican parish of Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, near his Mount Vernon estate on the Potomac River, along with many other visiting notaries and delegates in future years to the soon-to-be-convened Continental Congress and the political/military leadership of the colonial rebellion. Betsy and John Ross had no children.
The American Revolutionary War broke out when the two young Rosses had been married for only two years. As a member of the local Pennsylvania Provincial Militia and its units from the city of Philadelphia, John Ross was assigned to guard munitions and, according to one legend, was killed by a gunpowder explosion, but family sources have doubts about this claim. The 24-year-old Elizabeth ("Betsy") continued working in the upholstery business repairing uniforms and making tents, blankets, and stuffed paper tube cartridges with musket balls for prepared packaged ammunition in 1779 for the Continental Army.
There is speculation that Betsy was the "beautiful young widow," who distracted Carl von Donop in Mount Holly, New Jersey, after the Battle of Iron Works Hill, thus keeping his forces out of the crucial "turning-of-the-tide" Battle of Trenton during Christmas, 1776, in which the mercenary Hessians were defeated after the famous crossing of the Delaware River.
On June 15, 1777, she married her second husband, mariner Joseph Ashburn. In 1780, Ashburn's ship was captured by a British Royal Navy frigate and he was charged with treason (for being of British ancestry and "naturalized" American colonial citizenship was not recognized) and imprisoned at Old Mill Prison, in England. During this time, their first daughter, Zilla, died at the age of nine months and their second daughter, Eliza, was born. Seaman Ashburn died in the British jail.
Three years later, in May 1783, she married John Claypoole, who had coincidentally earlier met Joseph Ashburn in the English Old Mill Prison and had informed her of her husband's circumstances and death.
The couple had additionally five daughters: Clarissa, Susanna, Jane, Rachel, and Harriet, (who died in infancy). With the birth of their second daughter Susanna in 1786, they moved to a larger house on Philadelphia's Second Street, settling down to a peaceful post-war existence, as Philadelphia prospered as the temporary national capital (1790–1800) of the newly independent United States of America, with the first President George Washington, his Vice President, John Adams, and the convening members of the new federal government and the U.S. Congress.
In 1793, her mother, father, and sister Deborah Griscom Bolton (1743–93) all died in another severe yellow fever epidemic (a disease unknowingly caused by infected mosquitoes that in those times ranged further north from the sub-tropical zones of the southern U.S.). After two decades of poor health, John Claypoole died in 1817. Mrs. Claypoole (the former Mrs. Ross), continued the upholstery business for 10 more years. Upon retirement, she moved in with her second Claypoole daughter, Susanna (1786–1875), in a section of Abington Township in then rural Montgomery County, outside of Philadelphia. Her eldest Claypoole daughter, Clarissa (1785–1864), had taken over Betsy's business back in the city.
Ross (Mrs. Claypoole), by then completely blind, spent her last three years living with her middle Claypoole daughter, Jane (1792–1873), in rapidly growing and industrializing Philadelphia. On Saturday, January 30, 1836, sixty years after the Declaration of Independence, Betsy Ross died at the age of 84. She was survived by five daughters with John Claypoole: Eliza, Clarissa, Susanna, Jane, and Rachel, and one sister, Hannah Griscom Levering (1755–1836), who herself died about eleven months later.
Although it is one of the most visited tourist sites in the city of Philadelphia, the claim that Ross once lived at the so-called "Betsy Ross House" is still a matter of historical academic dispute.
Betsy Ross's body was first interred at the Free Quaker burial grounds on North Fifth Street in Philadelphia. Twenty years later, her remains were moved to the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia. In preparation for the American Bicentennial, the City ordered the remains moved to the courtyard of the now-legendary Betsy Ross House in 1975; however, cemetery workers found no remains beneath her tombstone. Bones found elsewhere in the family plot were deemed to be hers and were re-interred in the current grave visited by tourists at the "Betsy Ross House".
Betsy Ross postage stamp
On January 1, 1952, the U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative postage stamp to honor the 200th Anniversary/Bicentennial of her birth. It shows her presenting the new 13-striped, 13-starred flag to George Washington, with Robert Morris, and George Ross aside. The design was taken from a painting by Charles H. Weisberger, one of the founders and first secretary of the Memorial Association, who has cared for and operated the so-called Ross House. This was issued when the "Ross Legend" was still strong and accepted by many of the American public before additional historical and academic scrutiny had been done and researched.
Memory and legend
Research conducted by the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. notes that the story of Betsy Ross making the first American flag for General George Washington entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 Centennial celebrations, with the Centennial Exposition then scheduled to be held in Philadelphia. In 1870, Ross's grandson, William J. Canby, presented a research paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in which he claimed that his grandmother had "made with her hands the first flag" of the United States. Mr. Canby said he first obtained this information from his aunt Clarissa Sydney (Claypoole) Wilson in 1857, twenty years after Betsy Ross's death. Canby dates the historic episode based on General Washington's journey to Philadelphia, in the late spring of 1776, a year before the Second Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act of June 14, 1777.
In the 2008 book The Star-Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon, Smithsonian Institution experts point out that Canby's recounting of the event appealed to patriotic Americans then eager for stories about the Revolution and its heroes and heroines. Betsy Ross was promoted as a patriotic role model for young girls and a symbol of women's contributions to American history. American historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich further explored this line of enquiry in a 2007 article, "How Betsy Ross Became Famous: Oral Tradition, Nationalism, and the Invention of History."
Betsy Ross was merely one of several flag makers in Philadelphia (such as Rebecca Flower Young, who is historically documented to have made the earlier Grand Union Flag of 1775–76, with the British Union Jack of crosses of St. George and St. Andrew, in the upper corner canton and thirteen alternating red and white stripes for the "United Colonies") for the Continental Army, along with many other ships' colors, banners, and flags which were advertised in local newspapers.
Rebecca Young's daughter Mary Young Pickersgill (1776–1857) made the famous flag of 15 stars and stripes in 1813 begun at her house and finished on the floor of a nearby brewery, delivered to the commander of the fort the year before the famous British attack of September 12–14, 1814, on Fort McHenry in Baltimore, during the War of 1812, (receiving a government-issued receipt for the work of two flags, a large 30 by 42 foot "garrison flag" and a smaller "storm flag"), then seen by Francis Scott Key (1779–1843) and which inspired him to write the poem which later became the National Anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner. Pickersgill's small 1793 rowhouse in still preserved in East Baltimore's Old Town neighborhood at East Pratt and Albemarle Streets and is known as the "Star-Spangled Banner Flag House". Occasionally over the decades, there has been some controversy and disagreement between the relative merits and historical accuracies of the two flag-making traditions and historical sites in Philadelphia and Baltimore. It is thought that Ross's only contribution to the flag design was to change the 6-pointed stars to the easier 5-pointed stars. Other historians accept the subsequent claim by Francis Hopkinson, a member of the Continental Congress, who also designed the Great Seal of the United States as having proposed designs used for the early American flag.
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