Biography of Betsy Ross, American Icon

Betsy Ross and Assistants Sewing the First Flag - Henry Mosler Painting

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Betsy Ross (January 1, 1752–January 30, 1836) was a colonial seamstress who is usually credited with creating the first American flag. During the American Revolution, Ross made flags for the navy. After her death, she became a model of patriotism and a key figure in the legend of early American history.

Fast Facts

  • Known for: According to legend, Betsy Ross made the first American flag in 1776.
  • Also known as: Elizabeth Griscom Ross, Elizabeth Ashburn, Elizabeth Claypoole
  • Born: January 1, 1752, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Parents: Samuel and Rebecca James Griscom
  • Died: January 30, 1836, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Spouse(s): John Ross (m. 1773-1776), Joseph Ashburn (m. 1777–1782), John Claypoole (m. 1783–1817)
  • Children: Harriet Claypoole, Clarissa Sidney Claypoole, Jane Claypoole, Aucilla Ashburn, Susannah Claypoole, Elizabeth Ashburn Claypoole, Rachel Claypoole

Early Life

Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 1, 1752. Her parents were Samuel and Rebecca James Griscom. Ross was the great-granddaughter of a carpenter, Andrew Griscom, who had arrived in New Jersey in 1680 from England.

As a youth, Ross likely attended Quaker schools and learned needlework there and at home. When she married John Ross, an Anglican, in 1773, she was expelled from the Friends Meeting for marrying outside the meeting. She eventually joined the Free Quakers, or "Fighting Quakers," who did not adhere strictly to the historic pacifism of the sect. The Free Quakers supported the American colonists in their struggle against the British crown. Ross and her husband began an upholstery business together, drawing on her needlework skills.

John was killed in January 1776 on militia duty when gunpowder exploded at the Philadelphia waterfront. After his death, Ross acquired property and kept up the upholstery business, making flags for the Pennsylvania Navy and tents, blankets, and other materials for the Continental Army.

The Story of the First Flag

According to legend, Ross made the first American flag in 1776 after a visit in June from George Washington, Robert Morris, and her husband's uncle, George Ross. She demonstrated to them how to cut a five-pointed star with a single clip of the scissors if the fabric were folded correctly.

So the story goes—but this story was not told until 1870 by Ross's grandson William Canby, and then even he claimed that it was a story that needed confirmation (a few other seamstresses from that era also claimed to have made the first American flag). Most scholars agree that it was probably not Ross who made the first flag, though she was a flagmaker who, records show, was paid in 1777 by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board for making "ship's colours, &c."

After Ross's grandson told his story of her involvement with the first flag, it quickly became legend. First published in Harper's Monthly in 1873, the story was included in many school textbooks by the mid-1880s.

The story became popular for several reasons. For one, changes in women's lives, and social recognition of such changes, made discovering a "founding mother" to stand alongside the "founding fathers" attractive to the American imagination. Betsy Ross was not only a widow making her own way in life with her young child—widowed during the American Revolution not once, but twice—but she was also earning a living by a traditionally female occupation: Seamstress. (Notice that her abilities to buy and manage land never made it into her legend, and are ignored in many biographies.)

Another factor in the Ross legend was growing patriotic fever connected with the American flag. This required a tale that was more than just a business transaction, such as the (probably true) story of Francis Hopkinson, who created the stars-and-stripes design for the flag along with the design for the first U.S. coin. Finally, the growing advertising industry made the woman with a flag a popular image and used it to sell a variety of products (even flags).

Second and Third Marriages

In 1777, Ross married Joseph Ashburn, a sailor, who had the misfortune of being on a ship captured by the British in 1781. He died in prison the following year.

In 1783, Ross married again. This time her husband was John Claypoole, who had been in prison with Joseph Ashburn, and who had met Ross when he delivered Joseph's farewells to her. She spent the following decades, with help from her daughter Clarissa, making flags and banners for various departments of the U.S. government. In 1817, her husband died after a long illness, and Ross soon retired from work to live with her daughter Susanna on a farm outside of Philadelphia. During the final years of her life, Ross went blind, though she continued to attend Quaker meetings.

Death

Betsy Ross died on January 30, 1836, at the age of 84. She was reburied in the Free Quaker Burying Ground in 1857. In 1975, the remains were moved once again and reinterred in the grounds of the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia.

Legacy

After her death, Ross became a prominent character in the story of America's founding, while many other stories of women's involvement in the American Revolution were forgotten or ignored. Like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan, she is now one of the country's most prominent folk heroes.

Today, a tour of Betsy Ross's home in Philadelphia (there is some doubt about its authenticity, too) is a "must-see" when visiting historical sites. The home, established with the aid of two million ten-cent contributions by American schoolchildren, is a unique and informative place. One can begin to see what home life was like for families in the early colonial era, and to remember the disruption and inconvenience, even tragedy, that war brought to women as well as to men during the American Revolution.

Even if she did not make the first American flag, Ross was still an example of what many women of her time found as the reality in times of war: widowhood, single motherhood, managing household and property independently, quick remarriage for economic reasons. As such, she is emblematic of this unique period of American history.