Betsy Ross

Betsy Ross (1752-1836) is an American icon, famous for having sewn the first American flag and personally presenting it to George Washington in Philadelphia in 1776.

The only problem with the story is that it is not true. At the very least, there is not a shred of documented evidence that Betsy Ross did what she is so often given credit for, in countless books, plays, movies, and even on a U.S. postage stamp.

Origin of the Story

The idea that Betsy Ross was the “Mother of the Star and Stripes” was almost certainly put forward more than 100 years after 1776, and more than 50 years after Ross had died. The story was created by none other than Ross’ own grandson, William J, Canby, who first told the story in a paper presented to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Canby claimed to have obtained the information about his grandmother from his aunt, Clarissa Sydney Wilson, but he had nothing by way of documentation or other witnesses to corroborate the story of his aunt. It seems clear he was merely passing on a family myth.

What is known about Betsy Ross is that she was definitely a skilled seamstress and probably was involved in sewing early American flags. She may even have contributed in a hands-on way to sewing some of the first American flags. But as to designing the look of the Stars and Stripes, and actually creating the symbolic look of the flag, historians agree it was not the work of Betsy Ross.

Unlucky in Love

Ross was born in Elizabeth Griscom in 1757 into a Quaker family. She was one of 17 children of Samuel Griscom and Rebecca James. She was apprenticed to work in the upholstery business at about age 18 after completing an education in a Quaker school.

Betsy Ross was extremely unlucky in love in that she married and buried three husbands. Her first husband died two years after their elopement and marriage when he was killed in a gunpowder explosion accident. Her second husband was a sailor who served in the Revolutionary War. He was captured and died in a British prison. She managed to stay married to her third husband for some 20 years before he died of natural causes, but not before she bore him five daughters. She had at least one surviving child – also a daughter – from a previous marriage.

Helping to Change History

By all accounts, Betsy Ross was a beautiful woman. There is some historical evidence to suggest that her fabulous good looks helped George Washington win his decisive victory at the Battle of Trenton.

One of the reasons Washington prevailed at Trenton is that Carl von Donop, who was a Hessian colonel, was busy romancing Ross when he should have been reinforcing his fellow Hessians at Trenton when they were being routed by Washington.

Betsy Ross had a long life, dying at age 84 in Philadelphia. Today the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the United States. It is here that Ross supposedly designed and stitched together the first American flag.

The problem is, like so much of the legend surrounding Ross, it is not certain that she ever lived in this location. What is certain is that the story of Betsy Ross and her special connection to the American flag is a myth.

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