Updated on 3 February 2021
The forerunner to the current United States flag, the Betsy Ross Flag is named after a ‘Free Quaker’ seamstress.
From a Quaker family, like many in Pennsylvania at the time, Betsy Ross (1752 – 1836) was born Elizabeth Griscom. Once her school education had ended, her father had Betsy apprenticed to an upholsterer.
It was as an upholsterer that she met her future husband, John Ross, brother of George Ross, a signatory on the Declaration of Independence. Since Ross belonged to the Church of England, the Quaker community frowned upon the couple marrying. So, they eloped when Betsy was 21-years-old.
After the elopement, Ross was estranged from her family and expelled from her Quaker congregation for supporting the war effort. Her husband died a few years later during the Revolution.
Several hundred Quakers, including Betsy Ross, were strongly drawn to the revolutionary cause and, as a result, many of them supported resistance against the British.
The American Revolutionary War divided society and it divided Quakers just as it did other religious groups. A significant minority of the Society of Friends paid war taxes and entered into military service. Some Quakers were conscientiously convinced that they could take up arms against the British, despite the Friends’ Peace Testimony.
As a whole, the North American Quakers disowned members who served in the military. Almost 1,000 Quakers were disowned during the course of the war, mostly for taking up arms.
In 1781, a few of these disowned Friends, including Ross, broke away and formed the Society of Free Quakers in Philadelphia. This small group was a refuge for Friends who actively supported American independence as well as the principles of Quakerism.
Following the end of the American Revolutionary War, the number of Free Quakers began to dwindle as some members died and others were either accepted back into the society or by other religious institutions. The final meeting of the Free Quakers was held in 1836.
Today, the descendants of the original Free Quakers hold an annual meeting at the Free Quaker Meeting House, Philadelphia, established in 1783.
According to folklore, the original flag was made in June, 1776. This was when a small committee including George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross visited Betsy to discuss the need for a new American flag.
Betsy was given a design, but altered it by changing the common six-pointed star to the five-pointed star.
Other than the say-so of her distant relatives, there is no tangible evidence supporting Ross’ design and creation of the first American flag. However, much circumstantial evidence against her role in creating the flag exists.
This includes no records of a flag design committee, no evidence that George Washington even knew who Ross was, and no mention in letters or diaries from the period. Ross was paid a significant sum by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board to make flags, but there’s no details about what those flags were.
While Betsy Ross may not have designed the flag, legend around her supposed creation will live forever as part of American folklore. The story first started to circulate in popular consciousness around the 1876 centennial, allegedly passed down through the Ross family.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the story of the Betsy Ross Flag is true or not. It’s an American symbol that carries her name and will continue to inspire.
The body of Ross was first interred at the Free Quaker burial grounds on North Fifth Street in Philadelphia.
In 1975, in preparation for the American Bicentennial, her remains were moved to the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House, the home where she lived and which still stands today as a popular tourist attraction.