Ross, Betsy

views updated Jun 11 2018

Betsy Ross

Born January 1, 1752
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died January 30, 1836
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Shop manager, upholsterer, seamstress

Betsy Ross is widely believed to have made the first American flag. Widowed three times, she had seven daughters, lived through the American Revolution, and for sixty-two years ran her own small business. This spirited, independent woman lived a remarkable life that was very much tied up with the events of the Revolution.

Elizabeth "Betsy" Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole, who will be called here by her more popular name, Betsy Ross, was born on January 1, 1752, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ross was the eighth of seventeen children born to Rebecca and Samuel Griscom, who ran a construction business. Young Ross was an attractive girl with thick brown hair and blue eyes who showed strong skills with a needle and thread. Until age twelve she attended a school run by the Religious Society of Friends, whose members were called Quakers.

Learns upholstery trade, marries, is widowed

In 1764 Ross began working for John Webster to learn the trade of upholstering, which in colonial times involved more than covering furniture: Upholsterers also hung wallpaper and made carpets, umbrellas, mattresses, draperies, tablecloths, blankets, flags, tents, furniture for ships, and other items.

While working at Webster's shop, the young girl met and fell in love with her fellow shop worker, John Ross, the son of an Episcopal minister. Ross's Quaker parents were upset by the relationship and insisted that she end it. They feared that the Quaker community might reject the entire family if Ross married outside her religion. But the strong-willed young woman would not be swayed from her decision. In 1773 John and Betsy ran away and were married. Just as her parents had feared, the Quakers disowned Ross, but her parents were permitted to remain members of the church. Back in Philadelphia, the couple rented a small house, using part of it for a new upholstery business and living in the other rooms.

In 1775 relations between the American colonies and Great Britain, the mother country, were tense. John Ross was a member of a volunteer force of American patriots who had promised to defend the citizens of Philadelphia if British soldiers attacked the city. In December 1775 he was guarding a store of gunpowder when it exploded. Friends brought him home to his wife, who nursed him until he died on January 21, 1776.

Sews the Stars and Stripes

On June 14, 1777, America's Second Continental Congress passed a resolution approving the design of a flag to represent the newly formed United States of America. The short document said: "Resolved that the Flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."

According to Betsy Ross's grandson, William Canby, who sent a paper to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in March 1870, in late 1776 Betsy Ross was visited at her shop by George Washington see entry, head of the Continental army; George Ross, her late husband's uncle; and Robert Morris, a wealthy landowner. They had brought her a sketch of a new American flag and asked her to make one. She suggested using the more easily made five-pointed stars instead of the six-pointed stars on the sketch. The men liked and approved her design, and she sewed the flag in her back parlor. Canby's story was repeated in Harper's Monthly magazine and other publications, including history books.

Takes over business, remarries

The young widow continued to run the upholstery business on her own. In 1776 Ross was reintroduced to Joseph Ashburn, who had once been her schoolmate. Ashburn commanded a ship called the Swallow, which he sailed to the West Indies. While there, he loaded his ship with items such as sugar, molasses, and tobacco to sell back home. When war started between America and Great Britain in 1775, the Swallow became a privateer, a privately owned ship that had permission from the American government to attack and capture British ships, especially those carrying trade items.

Privateering was very dangerous, because British patrols were on the lookout for American ships. By 1777 the

British had made it almost impossible for the Swallow and ships like it to leave Philadelphia. Captain Ashburn laid low for a while, using his free time to court Betsy Ross, who finally agreed to marry him. On June 15, 1777, family and friends witnessed their wedding at a Lutheran Church near Philadelphia. After the wedding, Ross continued to work in the shop, and Ashburn resumed his trips to the West Indies. In August 1777 he returned from there with supplies for the two American forts that guarded Philadelphia.

Life in war-torn Philadelphia

In mid-1777 it appeared that a British attack on Philadelphia would soon occur. Joseph Ashburn, fearing he would be taken prisoner, left the city. The British attempt to seize Philadelphia began in September. Some Americans responded by fighting in the streets, but most citizens, including Betsy Ross, stayed inside their homes. Warfare in and around Philadelphia resulted in many injuries and deaths. Ross helped nurse both British and American soldiers and waited to hear word about her missing husband.

Life in Philadelphia grew difficult. Food and supplies were scarce for both the Americans and the British. The British decided to destroy Philadelphia's forts, where American soldiers were preventing them from bringing their supplies down the Delaware River into Philadelphia. Their efforts succeeded, and in October 1777 both forts fell to the British. A worried Ross finally learned that her husband was safe and had been hiding the Swallow in nearby New Jersey to prevent its capture by the British.

Hard times reverse when British leave city

In the winter of 1777–78 the Delaware River was once again open to the British, who brought supplies into Philadelphia, including cloth. An unhappy but uncomplaining Ross made dresses for Loyalist women (those who had remained loyal to England) and repaired the uniforms of British soldiers. But along with other Philadelphians she secretly sent badly needed food, medicine, and clothing to American soldiers at nearby Valley Forge.

In early 1778 the colonists of Philadelphia had a hard time finding food and firewood, while British officers occupying the city were enjoying fine meals and blazing fireplaces. The situation changed on June 18, 1778, when the British and the Loyalists suddenly abandoned Philadelphia. The British authorities had ordered them to New York after Congress had rejected new British terms for peace. Ross and other Americans celebrated in the streets as once again American flags flew over the city.

In the summer of 1778 Ashburn returned to Philadelphia, a city in turmoil. A British blockade of the port had shut off water routes, so American ships could not dock there. What supplies citizens could get were expensive.

Gives birth to two daughters; war ends

At summer's end Ashburn braved the British blockade and set off for the West Indies to obtain trade goods. He repeated the trip a number of times over the next year. During that time Ross continued sewing and helped the war effort by loading ammunition into containers for the Continental army.

With the profit from Ashburn's blockade runs, and the improvement of Ross's business, she was able to take some time off from work to care for the couple's first child, Lucilla, born on September 15, 1779. Assistants were able to take over some of Ross's work duties.

In October 1780 Ashburn set sail for the West Indies for the last time. In late November Ross learned from other sailors that the British had tightened their blockade and were taking over many American ships. With prices sky high and food in shorter supply than ever, times were very tough. Ross gave birth to her second child, Eliza, on February 25, 1781; she remained worried when no word came from her husband. In October 1781 Ross rejoiced when word reached Philadelphia that the Revolutionary War was at an end with the surrender of the British at Yorktown, Pennsylvania. Ross could resume her regular work in peace.

On August 15, 1782, John Claypoole, an old friend, came to visit Ross and carried with him sad news. Claypoole told her that he and Joseph Ashburn had been captured at sea by the British navy and sent to a prison in England. In March Joseph had become ill and died at the prison. Ross, now widowed for the second time, was heartbroken.

Claypoole, who had known Ross since childhood, made frequent visits to her home. Over time their affection for one another grew. He told Ross that he had decided to resume sailing a privateer and asked her to marry him. Ross made it clear that she would never again marry a sailor. Claypoole decided to give up life on the sea and find work in Philadelphia.

The couple wed on May 8, 1783, at Philadelphia's Christ Church, and began working together at the upholstery shop. John used his experience as a soldier and sailor to produce and repair tents, cots, knapsacks, and other items for the army and to make and repair ship furniture and mattresses.

Joys and sorrows

In 1782 the Claypooles and their daughters joined the Society of Free Quakers, a new group for Quakers who had been disowned during the Revolution for breaking church rules. In the new church women were considered equal partners to men, an unusual arrangement for the time.

After the United States signed a peace treaty with Britain in 1783, goods and fabrics were imported into America in large quantities. With more work than ever before, the Claypoole family prospered. In April 1785 Ross gave birth to a third daughter, Clarissa Sidney; a fourth daughter, Susan, was born in November 1786. The Claypooles decided to move their family to a larger house while keeping their business going at their old address. In 1786 the family suffered the loss of their oldest daughter, Lucilla, and Sarah Donaldson, Ross's sister, to illness.

The Claypoole family grew to eight with the births of Rachel in 1789 and Jane in 1792. The next year Philadelphia was struck with an outbreak of the deadly, infectious disease called yellow fever. Ross's immediate family was spared, but she lost her mother, father, and oldest sister, Deborah. With the coming of the winter frost, the outbreak finally ended. Deborah's daughter came to live with the family, and they decided to move to an even larger house, where they lived happily for several years.

Business prospers, family grows

The flag-making part of the Claypooles' business picked up in 1795 when the design of the American flag underwent its first change. The addition of two new states, Vermont and Kentucky, meant that two more stars had to be added, and many new flags were ordered.

That same year, Ross gave birth to her seventh daughter, Harriet, who died at the age of ten months. Soon the household grew by one more when Ross's niece Margaret came to live with them after the deaths of her parents, husband, and son.

Later years

In the late 1700s John Claypoole took a job with the U.S. government while his wife continued to run the upholstery business. Then in 1800 Claypoole's failing health forced him to give up his job. Ross turned over many of her work duties to assistants and spent most of her time caring for her husband. The marriages of their daughters and the birth of several grandchildren brightened these difficult times.

The outbreak of the War of 1812 (1812–15) between the United States and Great Britain caused the upholstery business to greatly increase as merchants, shipping companies, and military groups ordered flags. The conflict ended in an American victory.

Ross was stunned by the loss of her third husband, John, who died on August 3, 1817, but continued to manage her business for ten more years, before finally retiring in 1827. She spent her final years living at the homes of her daughters in different Pennsylvania towns. She loved to have her family gather around and listen as she told stories. The children's favorite was her tale of how George Washington came to her shop and together they drew up plans for the Stars and Stripes.

Near the end of her life Ross became blind and was unable to leave her home. But relatives made frequent visits, and she was kept as comfortable as possible until she died peacefully on January 30, 1836. Ross was buried next to John Claypoole at Mount Mariah, Philadelphia's Quaker cemetery.

Flag story is popularized

More than forty years after her death, Betsy Ross was publicly credited with sewing the first American Stars and Stripes flag, though even today there are questions about whether or not she actually did. The story of her making the flag gained wide acceptance over the years, and in 1952 the U.S. government issued a postage stamp in her honor on the two-hundredth anniversary of her birth. The stamp bears a reproduction of a famous painting by C. H. Weisgerber that depicts Betsy Ross in her living room with George Washington and other patriots, discussing the design of the first American flag.

For More Information

Bourgoin, Suzanne M., and Paula Byers, eds. "Betsy Ross" in Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 297–98.

Boatner, Mark M., III. "Flag, American." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York David McKay, 1966, pp. 369–70.

DeBarr, Candice M., and Jack A. Bonkowske. Saga of the American Flag: An Illustrated History. Tucson: Harbinger House, 1990, p. 23.

St. George, Judith. Betsy Ross: Patriot of Philadelphia. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Thompson, Ray. Betsy Ross: Last of Philadelphia's Free Quakers. Fort Washington, PA: The Bicentennial Press, 1972.

Wallner, Alexandra. Betsy Ross. New York: Holiday House, 1994.

Zeinert, Karen. Those Remarkable Women of the Revolution. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996, pp. 62–63.

Web Sites

"Point–Counterpoint: Betsy Ross and the Flag." [Online] Available (accessed on 3/23/99).

Did Betsy Ross Sew the First Stars and Stripes?

Historical proof exists that Betsy Ross made a flag called the Cambridge flag, or Continental colors, the flag of America's Continental army. But there is no real proof that Ross sewed the first Stars and Stripes flag. Her daughter Clarissa, her niece Margaret, and other relatives did sign statements swearing to the fact that she told them she had made the flag. In addition, George Washington was in Philadelphia in late May and early June of 1776, and it is known that he had shown concern about the design of a new national flag.

Still, some historians doubt that Betsy Ross made the first American flag. They cite the fact that there are no written documents to support the claim and point out that no eyewitnesses came forward to verify it. But the public loved and accepted the flag story. In 1887 Ross's rented home, where she was said to have sewn the first flag, became a national historic site run by the Betsy Ross Memorial Association.

In 1925 Samuel Wetherill, a Quaker minister and descendant of Ross, found a paper pattern for a five-pointed star in a long-sealed safe. It had been signed by Ross's daughter Clarissa. There is a possibility it was Ross's original star pattern and had been put there for safekeeping.

Ross, Betsy

views updated May 21 2018

Ross, Betsy

Born January 1, 1752 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Died January 30, 1836 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Businesswoman, seamstress

Betsy Ross, the legendary maker of the first American flag known as the "Stars and Stripes," was a successful businesswoman during the early years of the nation. Ross did not just supplement the family income as many women did in the early years of the nation; she actually supported her family with her business skills. She trained as a seamstress and apprenticed as an upholsterer before becoming an official flag-maker for the Pennsylvania State Navy Board. She resided in Philadelphia her entire life and experienced firsthand the effects of the American Revolution (1775–83). Ross lost two husbands to the war, and at one point her home was taken over by the British to lodge soldiers.

"I remember having heard my mother ...say frequently that she, with her own hands ...made the first Star-spangled Banner that ever was made."

Rachel Fletcher, daughter of Betsy Ross

Disowned by the Quaker Society as a young woman, Ross became a faithful member of the new Society of Free Quakers. The group was commonly called the "Fighting Quakers" because they participated in civil affairs and the military defense of the country. This group contrasted with the regular, pacifist Quakers. Ross operated a successful upholstery and flag-making business for over fifty years, but a lifetime of sewing cost Ross her eyesight. She spent her final years with her children and grandchildren, telling them the story of how she made the first "Stars and Stripes."

Learning a trade

Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom on the first day of January in 1752. Rebecca James and Samuel Griscom were Quakers, a religious group that strongly opposed violence and war. Elizabeth, called Betsy, was the eighth of their seventeen children. The family lived in Philadelphia, where Samuel worked in the building trades. It is believed that he assisted in the construction of the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, the building in which the 1787 Constitutional Convention took place. The children attended the Friends' School on South Fourth Street. Rebecca also taught Betsy to do needlework. Betsy went on to work as an apprentice to an upholsterer. She learned to make and repair a variety of items, including rugs, umbrellas, and venetian blinds.

While learning her new trade, Betsy fell in love with fellow apprentice John Ross. John was of the Anglican faith; his father was the rector at Emmanuel Church in New Castle, Delaware. Betsy's family did not approve of her plans to marry John. The couple crossed over the Delaware River to New Jersey, where they wed on November 4, 1773. Because she married a non-Quaker, Betsy was disowned by her family and the Quaker Society. The Rosses attended Christ Church, an Anglican church in Philadelphia, where their family pew was just across the aisle from the pew of General George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2). Washington was an acquaintance of the family, and Betsy sewed and embroidered the general's shirts on occasion. John's uncle, Colonel George Ross (1730–1779), was a prominent Philadelphian and a friend of Washington. The two would sometimes drop by the Rosses' home for a friendly visit.

John and Betsy Ross opened an upholstery shop on Chestnut Street and later moved their business to Arch Street. When the American Revolution broke out, John joined the local militia and was assigned to guard munitions near the Delaware River. He was killed in an explosion of gunpowder in January 1776, leaving twenty-four-year-old Betsy a widow. She continued running the upholstery business and supplemented her income with military orders. Records show that the Continental Army placed orders for a variety of supplies including tents and blankets. In May 1777, Ross received payment for an order of flags for the State of Pennsylvania. Her business prospered, and Ross was able to acquire properties in Philadelphia and Cumberland Counties.

A symbol of liberty

In June 1776, Ross received a secret visit from a three-member committee of the Continental Congress. The group's leader was George Washington; the other two men were George Ross, uncle of Betsy's late husband, and Pennsylvania delegate Robert Morris (1734–1806). Congress had authorized them to design a flag for the emerging

Mary Young Pickersgill

Mary Young Pickersgill (1776–1857) was a young widow living in Baltimore, Maryland, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. She established a profitable flag-making business in order to support her daughter, Caroline, and her widowed mother, Rebecca Young. Pickersgill had learned the trade from her mother, who made flags for ships, forts, and organizations in Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

Pickersgill's business in Baltimore was equally as successful as her mother's had been. She made a good living designing and sewing flags for the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy. She also supplied banners and pennants to the many privateer ships operating out of Baltimore. Privateers were privately owned ships commissioned to fight or harass the enemy. They looted British merchant ships, seized the cargo, and transported it to foreign ports. During the War of 1812 (1812–15), business slowed considerably as the British blockaded Chesapeake Bay and made plans to attack Baltimore in response to the privateer attacks.

In the summer of 1813, Pickersgill received an order for two flags from Major George Armistead (1780–1818), the commander of Fort McHenry, an army post near Baltimore. The smaller flag was designed to fly in bad weather. The larger flag measured 30 feet by 42 feet and was designed to be visible from a great distance. It had fifteen stars and fifteen stripes representing the thirteen original American states plus Vermont and Kentucky. Pickersgill received a payment of $500 for both flags. She employed her daughter and several other women in order to finish the flags before hostilities erupted. They laid the immense flag out on the spacious floor of nearby Claggett's Brewery and worked night and day in order to complete the project in only six weeks.

They presented the flags to Armistead that summer, but as it turned out, more than a year would pass before the British attacked Baltimore. Pickersgill's large flag flew over Fort McHenry on the morning of August 14, 1814, inspiring Francis Scott Key (1779–1843) to write a poem that was later set to music and renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner." That flag was preserved and placed on permanent public display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Pickersgill was not only a successful early American businesswoman like Betsy Ross; she was also a philanthropist (one who gives to charities). She addressed social issues such as housing, job placement assistance, and financial aid for disadvantaged women. Pickersgill served as president of the Impartial Female Humane Society from 1828 until 1851. The society helped poor families with government funding support for children and employment opportunities for women. In 1850, the society established a home for aged women, and by 1863 a men's home was added. As testimony to her humanitarian efforts, the society became known as the Pickersgill Retirement Community.

nation. The committee presented Ross with a sketch of the proposed flag and commissioned her to make it. She changed the design slightly by substituting five-pointed stars for the six-pointed ones in the sketch, and she arranged the stars neatly in a circle instead of scattered over the field. The proposed flag was square, but Ross recommended changing it to a rectangle that was one-third longer than its width.

Ross quickly made the flag, and Congress unanimously approved it. The "Stars and Stripes" created by Ross became a symbol for the new nation. In June 1777, the Continental Congress passed the Flag Act, making the "Stars and Stripes" the official flag of the United States. The act stated that the American flag must have thirteen alternating red and white stripes as well as thirteen white stars on a blue background. The stars represented the thirteen colonies and were meant to symbolize the nation as a new constellation, unwavering in the night sky. History shows that flag-making was rather informal at that time and there were still many interpretations on the basic design. The arrangement of the stars in a circle became known as the Betsy Ross flag. For her efforts, Ross was given a contract to manufacture flags for the government for decades to come.

An early American businesswoman

In the summer of 1777, Ross married Joseph Ashburn. Serving as first mate on an American ship named the Patty, he was often away from home. Ross remained in Philadelphia, where their daughter, Zilla, was born in 1779. After Zilla's birth, Ashburn returned to the sea. Later, the British captured his ship and imprisoned him at Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. Ashburn was unaware of the death of his nine-month-old daughter, Zilla, and he would not live to see his daughter Eliza, born in 1781. Ashburn died in prison of an unknown illness in March 1782. Ross was once again a widow. She continued to support herself and her daughter with her upholstery and flag-making business.

John Claypoole, a family friend, had been a fellow prisoner of Joseph Ashburn in England. When the British released American prisoners in 1782, Claypoole made his way back to Philadelphia and contacted Ross. He told her of Ashburn's death and brought farewell messages from him to her. On May 8, 1783, Betsy married Claypoole. The couple had five children, but the youngest one died in infancy. Claypoole worked for the U.S. Custom House before his death in August 1817. His war injuries had left him disabled for nearly twenty of their thirty-four years together, so Ross supported the family with her business ventures.

Shortly after Ross married Claypoole, she sought to renew her association with the religion of her childhood. A new religious society calling themselves the Free Quakers had formed in Philadelphia in 1781 to meet the needs of those who had been disowned by the Society of Friends, or Quakers. The new society also welcomed those who were attracted by the Quaker ideas but who had no previous association. They initially met in homes but then accepted an offer from the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to meet on the university campus. A flyer titled An Address to Those of the People called Quakers was distributed in several states, inviting others to join the Free Quakers. The Address explained that the society was based on the fundamental principles and beliefs of the Friends. Their intended purpose was to allow the disowned to worship freely. The outstanding difference between the two societies was that the Free Quakers encouraged civil participation in the defense of the country as well as military action. Ross and her husband joined the Free Quakers in 1784. She remained a faithful member throughout the remainder of her life.

Ross continued her upholstery and flag-making business until her eyesight began to fail. After fifty years in her chosen profession, she retired at the age of seventy-six. Ross moved to a daughter's farm in the remote suburb of Abington, where her children and grandchildren visited her often. Ross frequently told her family the story of the fateful day when George Washington and his committee visited her home to ask that she make a flag for the new nation. Before she became completely blind, Ross took a carriage ride into the city once a week to attend church meetings. In 1833, Ross returned to Philadelphia, where she lived with her daughter's family on Cherry Street until her death at the age of eight-four. Ross was buried in the Free Quaker Burying Ground until 1857, when her remains were moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia.

History of a legend

For many years through the early American period, Ross's story of sewing America's first flag was known only by her family. In March 1870, her grandson, William J. Canby, delivered a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, describing Ross's role in the creation of the first "Stars and Stripes." His paper was based on his own conversations with his grandmother over twenty years earlier when he was still a child. Canby presented his research along with affidavits from several of his aunts to verify the story. He noted that his search for supporting documents outside the family had been unsuccessful. Canby called for research by others to confirm the matter.

Canby's story appeared in Harper's Monthly in July 1873. It was soon immortalized in print and illustrations. The centennial of the Flag Act in 1877 brought renewed interest in the flag and the symbolism that accompanied it. By the middle of the 1880s, the tale of Ross and her flag appeared in school textbooks and was one of the most familiar stories about the American Revolution.

In 1893, at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Charles H. Weisberger's painting Birth of Our Nation's Flag was put on display. The painting depicts Betsy Ross presenting her finished "Stars and Stripes" to George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross. A reproduction of the painting was printed on certificates sold in 1898 for a contribution of ten cents to the Betsy Ross Memorial Association. Over two million of the certificates were sold, and the proceeds funded restoration of the Betsy Ross House, where the flag was likely made.

For More Information


Armentrout, David, and Patricia Armentrout. Betsy Ross. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Publishing, 2004.

Duden, Jane. Betsy Ross. Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Books, 2002.

Guenter, Scot M. The American Flag, 1777–1924: Cultural Shifts from Creation to Codification. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.

Miller, Susan Martins. Betsy Ross: American Patriot. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000.

Randolph, Ryan P. Betsy Ross: The American Flag, and Life in a YoungAmerica. New York: PowerPlus Books, 2002.

St. George, Judith. Betsy Ross: Patriot of Philadelphia. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Web Sites

"The Betsy Ross Homepage." Independence Hall Association. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

"Mary Young Pickersgill." The National Flag Day Foundation, Inc. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

Betsy Ross

views updated May 09 2018

Betsy Ross

Although the evidence is not solid, most historians point to upholsterer Betsy Ross (1752-1836) as the woman who sewed the first U.S. flag.

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress, on a motion from John Adams, adopted the stars and stripes as the national flag. History leaves its students with very few clues as to who designed and created the original flag, but it has been long attributed to the Philadelphia seamstress and upholsterer Betsy Ross. So widely accepted is the story of this legendary flagmaker, the United States government issued a commemorative postage stamp in 1952 in celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of her birth.

Elizabeth Griscom was the eighth of 17 children born to Samuel and Rebecca Griscom. Her father operated a building business, which had been established by her great-grandfather Andrew Griscom, who had emigrated from England in 1680. Raised and educated as a Quaker, she was disowned by the Quaker church, the Society of Friends, in 1773 when she eloped to Gloucester, New Jersey, to marry John Ross, an Episcopalian.

Opened Upholstery Shop

Ross and her husband returned to Philadelphia, where they opened an upholstery and sewing shop on Arch Street, which also served as their home. John, a member of the state militia, was killed three years later in an explosion while on guard duty. After the death of her husband, Betsy continued the day-to-day operations of the shop.

On June 15, 1777, Ross married Captain Joseph Ashburn, at Old Swedes' Church. Together they had two daughters. As with Ross's previous husband, Ashburn's military career once again made her a widow. The first mate of the brigantine Patty, he was captured at sea by the British Navy. He died on March 3, 1782, in the Old Mill Prison, Plymouth, England.

The news of her husband's death was brought to Ross by John Claypoole, a lifelong friend of both Ross and Ashburn. This friendship quickly grew into more, and the two were married May 8, 1783. Together, they continued to run the upholstery shop. Returning to her Quaker roots, Betsy and her husband joined the Society of Free Quakers. Before he died in 1817, he and Ross had five daughters.

After her third husband's death, Ross lived the remainder of her life with one of her daughters and continued to work in the shop until 1827, when she turned it over to her daughter. Upon her death on January 30, 1836, she was buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia. The house where she purportedly made the flag was marked as a historical landmark in 1887.

Birth of a Legend

There is very little evidence to support the story that Ross was the creator of the original flag. The story of her contribution to the design and creation of the first flag of the United States was first put forth by her grandson, William Canby, in March of 1870 before a meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He claims that as an 11-year-old boy, his grandmother told him of her involvement with the stars and stripes while on her deathbed. According to Who Was Who in the American Revolution, the legend stated: "(George) Washington, (George) Ross, and Robert Morris came to Mrs. Ross's house in June 1776 and asked her to make a flag for the new country that was on the verge of declaring its independence. She suggested a design to Washington, he made a rough pencil sketch on the basis of it, and she there upon made the famous flag in her back parlor. She is supposed also to have suggested the use of the five-rather than the six-pointed star chosen by Washington."

Although there is no written record to support this story, there is ample evidence, in the form of receipts, that she made numerous flags for the Pennsylvania State Navy, and many efforts to refute the legend have failed. The millions of members of the Betsy Ross Memorial Association would have one accept the story as fact, but until further evidence is revealed, it cannot be either proved or disproved.

Further Reading

Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, pp. 174-175.

Whitney, David C., The Colonial Spirit of '76, J. G. Ferguson Publishing Company, 1974, pp. 352-353. □

Ross, Betsy

views updated May 29 2018

Ross, Betsy (1752–1836) US seamstress. She is said to have made the first American stars and stripes flag.