Ross, Betsy (1752–1836)

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Ross, Betsy (1752–1836)

Celebrated creator of the first American flag. Name variations: Elizabeth Ross; Elizabeth Ashburn; Elizabeth Claypoole; Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole. Born Elizabeth Griscom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 1, 1752; died in Philadelphia on January 30, 1836; daughter of Samuel Griscom (a builder) and Rebecca (James) Griscom; married John Ross, on November 4, 1773 (died 1776); married Joseph Ashburn, in June 1777 (died 1782); married John Claypoole, on May 8, 1783 (died 1817); children: (second marriage) Zillah Ashburn (b. 1779), who died young; Eliza Ashburn (b. 1781); (third marriage) Clarissa Sidney Claypoole Wilson (b. 1785); Susan Claypoole (b. 1786); Rachel Claypoole (b. 1789); Jane Claypoole (b. 1792); Harriet Clay-poole (b. 1795), who died as an infant.

Betsy Ross, whose name has been as familiar to generations of American schoolchildren as those of Pocahontas and Sacajawea , was born in Philadelphia in 1752, into a family that eventually included 17 children. She was the daughter of Rebecca Griscom and Samuel Griscom, a builder who allegedly worked on the construction of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Both were members of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, and Betsy probably attended the Quaker school on South Fourth Street. She learned needlework from her mother and was talented enough to receive contracts for military flags throughout her lifetime.

On November 4, 1773, Betsy married John Ross, who had been apprenticed to an upholsterer, and the newlyweds started their own upholstery business. But John was an Episcopalian, not a Quaker, and Betsy was cast out of the Society of Friends; she would later become a member of the Society of Free Quakers or "Fighting Quakers." In January 1776, while on militia duty, John died in an accidental gunpowder explosion. Ross took over the upholstery business, which would thrive until her retirement at age 75.

In 1777, one month after she married her second husband Joseph Ashburn, Ross provided "ship's colours, etc." (a flag) for Pennsylvania's navy. Along with making flags, Ross supplemented the upholstery business' income by investing in livestock and property, including some 190 acres in Cumberland County. The couple had two children, Zillah (b. 1779), who died young, and Eliza Ashburn (b. 1781). But Joseph Ashburn was also a military man, a first mate on the brigantine Patty, and their marriage was cut short by the American Revolution. The British captured Ashburn's ship in 1781 and sent him to a British prison, where he died in 1782. A friend of Ashburn's named John Claypoole visited Ross to deliver a last message from her husband. In 1783, less than a year after this meeting, they married. Ross and Claypoole had five daughters: Clarissa Sidney Claypoole (b. 1785), Susan Claypoole (b. 1786), Rachel Claypoole (b. 1789), Jane Claypoole (b. 1792), and Harriet Claypoole (b. 1795), who died as an infant. After John Claypoole died in August 1817, Ross continued living in Philadelphia where she ran the upholstery business until 1827, when she passed it down to a daughter. She died in Philadelphia in January 1836.

Betsy Ross was an active, accomplished woman, the mother of seven children and a successful businesswoman and real-estate investor. She became legendary, however, for her disputable involvement in the creation of the nation's first flag.

George Ross, an uncle of Ross' first husband, was a well-known patriot, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a friend of George Washington. According to legend, George Ross, George Washington, and Robert Morris visited Betsy Ross in June 1776—or, by some accounts, as late as 1777—as members of a secret committee of the Continental Congress seeking a flag for the nascent nation. Betsy suggested a design to Washington, who then made a pencil sketch of it. Washington originally wanted six-pointed stars, but Ross preferred them five-pointed because they were easier to cut.

No contemporary documents or accounts of these events exist. Because working to further the patriots' cause was considered treason against Britain, these activities were understandably suppressed at the time. Nonetheless, if George Washington secretly commissioned Ross to create a flag, he never recorded her contribution—and he was unusually conscientious about thanking women who helped in the fight for independence, among them Phillis Wheatley and Eliza Pinckney . Furthermore, an account written by Washington on January 4, 1776, stated, "We hoisted the union flag in compliment to the United States." Therefore, Washington already had a flag and most likely would not have asked Ross to create another.

Since many flags were used by different military units during the American Revolution, and considering Ross' occupation and her close relations to prominent political figures such as her late husband's uncle, it is possible that Ross created at least one of these flags. There are no accounts in the records of the Continental Congress of any committee concerned with the creation of a flag, but on June 14, 1777, the U.S. Congress resolved: "That the flag of the U.S. be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white, that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation." Ross was not mentioned here either (and credit for this design is often given to Francis Hopkinson, a lawyer, writer, and signer of the Declaration of Independence).

Ross was first connected publicly with the flag almost 100 years after the American Revolution. In March 1870, at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, her grandson William Canby presented a history of the family, including the popularly known tale that his great-aunt had created the flag. He claimed that his Aunt Clarissa had heard it from her mother, Betsy Ross. The story was impossible to check because the participants were no longer alive. Harper's Monthly printed the tale in July 1873. Within the next decade, children's American history textbooks presented it as fact, making Ross one of the few women mentioned in history schoolbooks (a state of affairs that would continue throughout most of the 20th century). Ross' Philadelphia home, where she may have fashioned the flag, became a historical monument in 1887. Twelve years later, a painting of the event was displayed at the Columbian Exposition. Clearly her grandson's story struck a chord in American culture that has continued to ring for more than a century.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Johnson, Thomas H. The Oxford Companion to American History. NY: Oxford University Press, 1966.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer, Bayville, New York