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News Flash - Historians Disagree over Betsy Ross

Offered by Jan Coffey, author

When we were kids, we knew that old story about George Washington and the cherry tree had to be a myth. Though America was a much more innocent place, even then we knew that this was just a tale concocted to teach us that telling the truth was a good thing. The fact that it also subtly supported the idea that our nation's leaders couldn't possibly lie to us was only an added bonus. There was another tidbit of history, though, that there was no argument about, as far as we knew. That was the story of Betsy Ross coming up with the nation's first flag. We all know the story... or at least parts of it.

The tale goes that on a warm spring day, George Washington and a couple of other guys-namely Robert Morris and George Ross stopped in at the Philadelphia seamstress's house and asked her to put together a flag for the fledgling nation. Morris was a financier who put a lot of money into the American Revolution. Ross was a relative of Betsy's late husband. General Washington knew her because she worshiped at the same church that he did when he was in Philadelphia, and she reportedly did some tailoring for him when he was in town making his appearances before the Continental Congress, which met there. According to the story, Washington had been after Congress to get a flag that his troops could rally to. He finally came up with a design himself, and the three men (acting as an informal sub-committee of the Congress) walked over to Arch Street, a few blocks from Independence Hall. Betsy's story (as told by her descendents) was that she looked at it, made some suggestions, impressed Washington with her knowledge of how to make a five-pointed star with the single snip of her scissors, and they gave her the job.

The story made sense to us as kids, and we took it at face value. After all, there didn't seem to be any moral to the story. Well, in researching our July 2003 suspense thriller, TRIPLE THREAT, we found out that historians are very much at odds about the veracity of the tale. Many, in fact, have relegated it to being simply a family legend that was promoted by William Canby, a grandson of Betsy Ross in the mid-1800s. Many historians argue that there is no verifiable proof that the meeting on Arch Street ever existed, and a number of factions have even argued that other people, among them Francis Hopkinson (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), actually came up with the design of the flag. In trying to sort out the pros and cons of the dispute, we found what we think is a reasonable explanation of what really happened. To begin with, we think that William Canby may have mentioned the wrong year in his recreation of the events involving his grandmother. While Washington could very well have visited Betsy Ross in late spring of 1776 (he was indeed in Philadelphia at the time), we think the meeting may also have taken place in May or June of 1777. In any event, we think Betsy Ross did get the job as she described to her children and her grandchildren, many of whom ended up working with her in the business of making flags for the U.S. government for the next fifty years.

Much work has been done in trying to find proof regarding the first appearance of the Betsy Ross flag, including studies of early paintings. Unfortunately, nothing is conclusive either way. Without repeating the arguments surrounding the first flag, arguments that can easily be found online, this is what we believe happened...

In early 1776, Washington had used a flag now called the Grand Union flag in his battle for Boston. That flag, with its British union jack in the upper corner, caused confusion with the residents of Boston, who were not certain who had won the battle when Washington had the colors raised. He wrote to Congress, asking for something new. Nothing apparently happened immediately. Taking charge, as he was wont to do, he approached Betsy Ross either in 1776 or 1777 and got the flag he wanted. If it were the latter year, George Washington was at the time with his troops in New Jersey, in Morristown and then Middlebrook. These encampments placed him on the main road and only about fifty miles from Philadelphia, where the rebel government was based. He was, at the time, having a difficult time holding his army together, and the commander was looking for symbolic as well as real ways to unify the regiments from the thirteen states. In looking at his letters to Congress from Middlebrook and Morristown, it's clear that Washington had a lot on his mind. The main British army under General Howe was not far away, and there were a number of skirmishes going on all over New Jersey. Still, there are several gaps in the dates of the letters that make it possible that Washington might have made a quick trip or two to Philadelphia during that time. Naturally, he would not have referred to it in advance in any letter, since the dispatches could easily be captured by the enemy. (There are several references to Washington intercepting dispatches from General Howe.) In one of those letters, he even says something to the effect of, "Since addressing you last..." instead of his customary, "Having the honor of receiving your letter of [date]..." At any rate, it appears the flag Washington had made is the one we traditionally call the Betsy Ross flag, with thirteen red and white stripe and a field of blue with a circle of thirteen white stars.

There are a number of pieces of circumstantial evidence that support both the story William Canby told about his grandmother. Interestingly enough, according to Canby there was a painted sketch of the design done by a William Barrett, a Philadelphia artist. It is very curious that when Congress was having sketches done for a Great Seal, they had a William Barton (also a Philadelphia artist) work on the design. The closeness of the names may be just coincidental, but we find it very interesting that Barton's first sketch of the Great Seal, made only five years later, shows a female figure holding a Betsy Ross flag. In addition, according to Internet sources, the records of the Pennsylvania Archives contain a minute from a meeting of May 29, 1777, of the Board of War, a subcommittee of Congress: "An Order on William Webb to Elizabeth Ross, for fourteen pounds, twelve shillings, two pence for making ships colours and put into William Richards' stores." Clearly, Betsy Ross was by then on the inside track for making flags. Another interesting point involves that same Board of War. Also in May of 1777, Philip Schuyler of New York was appointed commander of the Northern Division of the Continental Army. Before Schuyler left Philadelphia for New York, according to noted flag historian Robert Morris (no relation), the general had Betsy Ross make him a flag. This flag, with the now familiar red and white stripes and circle of five-pointed stars on a blue field, was passed down through the family and is now a part of the display at the Fort Ticonderoga museum.

The age and origin of this flag, which appears to have been completely reworked and restored about a hundred years after its creation, is also in dispute. It appears, however, to be the earliest circle of stars on a surviving American flag. It is interesting to note that Colonel George Ross, who was supposed to be in the committee with Washington that visited the seamstress, also served on the War Board that appointed Schuyler... making it quite likely that it was he who pointed General Schuyler toward the Arch Street home of Betsy Ross for his flag. Finally, on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the following: "Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.

When we started our brainstorming of TRIPLE THREAT, we couldn't help but do the old "what if... with this flag controversy. What if Betsy Ross did indeed make a flag for General Washington and General Schuyler just as the stories go?  What if, after the war was over, Washington sent that flag as a gift to his friend Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution?  What if that flag was lost for two hundred years, only to resurface at a time when American flags were being burned across the world in protest of our policies?  What if the President wanted that flag, as George Washington wanted it, to unify our country in the face of world opposition?  What if would-be presidential assassins found a way to use this flag for their own vile purposes?

Please visit the website of May McGoldrick, a pseudonym for Nikoo and Jim McGoldrick. Writing under the names of May McGoldrick and Jan Coffey, they have penned over forty works of historical romance, romantic suspense, and young adult fantasy and romanceAnd.. their Betsy Ross flag proudly hangs over their front door!


 
     
 
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