Betsy Ross

Betsy Ross is a heroine of the American Revolution, and if you’ve attended grade school in the US, you probably know why.  Or at least, you think you do.

Betsy Ross’s claim to fame is that she was approached by George Washington in the spring of 1776 and asked to sew the first American flag.  She adapted the original design of the stars on the flag to a 5-point design, and produced the first American flag for the brand new country and remained a staunch patriot for the rest of her life.

Although that story is very famous, it is actually much more myth than reality.  The real story of Betsy Ross is a little more ordinary but just as worthy of commemoration.

Betsy Ross was a seamstress (upholsterer) in Revolutionary War era Philadelphia and while she definitely made several American flags during her years in business, there is no evidence that she made the first American flag.

Betsy had already been widowed once when the American Revolution began in 1776.  She married again during the war, a mariner named Joseph Ashburn.  She had a daughter and was pregnant again when he went to sea, and was captured by the British.  Deemed a traitor, he was imprisoned in England, and died in custody.

Betsy spent the duration of the Revolution raising her two daughters by herself, supporting her family through her upholstery business.  At a time when women were not usually the breadwinners, and fatherless children were made wards of the state, she kept her family together during the worst of the American Revolution.

As the war was drawing to a close, Ross (who was actually born Elizabeth Griscom, John Ross was her first husband) married again to John Claypoole.  Claypoole was an old friend, and ironically the man who brought back the news of her second husband’s death.  They went on to have 5 more daughters.  Betsy Ross Claypoole continued her upholstery business as the new country grew up around her, finally abandoning it when she went completely blind in 1827.  She died in 1836, aged 84.

The fake flag story comes from her grandson, William Canby, who began telling the story in the 1870s, as the Centennial of the Revolution approached.  He said he based it on the tales he heard from his grandmother and aunts while he was growing up, but there has never been any supporting evidence for the story.

What is most interesting about Betsy Ross is not the fake flag story, but the more realistic story of a woman who survived tragedy, managed to keep her family together, clothed and fed during what cannot have been any easy time in US history.  Although she is famous for the wrong reason, she is the only ordinary woman from that time period that most Americans have ever heard of.  A better story for Betsy Ross would be that she represents the thousands of colonial women who were trying to do exactly the same thing she was, survive the Revolution and thrive in a new United States.

Rebecca Fachner is a writer, tour guide and self described “free range” historian, roaming freely over the landscape of the past.

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