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Primary Source of the Month

Betsy Ross, 1777

Betsy Ross, 1777
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
Cleveland, Ohio: The Foundation Press, Inc., c1932 July 28.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, [LC-USZC4-9905].

The story of Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag originated with Ross's grandson around 1870. In the story, General Washington visited the Philadelphia seamstress to ask her to design the nation's first flag. This painting shows Washington and two other members of the Continental Congress looking on while a young, beautiful Ross makes a star with a single snip of her scissors. Note George Washington sitting on the left-hand side, with a child on his knee. He is portrayed as fatherly, emphasizing his role as a benevolent father of our nation. The other men in the painting are attentively watching Ross, showing they value her skills. Though the story claims Ross was shown the draft during this visit, the painting shows the flag itself.

Ross' grandson, William Canby, reported the story he claimed he had heard passed down through the generations:

Sitting sewing in her shop one day with her girls around her, several gentlemen entered. She recognized one of these as the uncle of her deceased husband, Col. George Ross, a delegate from Pennsylvania to Congress. She also knew the handsome form and features of the dignified, yet graceful and polite Commander in Chief, who, while he was yet Colonel Washington had visited her shop both professionally and socially many times, (a friendship caused by her connection with the Ross family) they announced themselves as a committee of congress, and stated that they had been appointed to prepare a flag, and asked her if she thought she could make one, to which she replied, with her usual modesty and self reliance, that "she did not know but she could try; she had never made one but if the pattern were shown to her she had not doubt of her ability to do it."
—William Canby, "A Paper read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (March 1870), entitled A HISTORY OF THE FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES."

Betsy Ross revised the drawing of the proposed flag, changing the suggested six-pointed star into a five-pointed star that she could make with just one snip of her scissors. Washington liked the revision; Ross made the prototype; and Congress approved her flag as the official flag of the fledgling nation.

Prior to Canby, though, there is no proof of Betsy Ross' involvement with the flag. Ross did make flags for the Pennsylvania navy, but there is no written evidence that she created a flag for Congress. The Continental Congress didn't actually have a flag committee in 1776, nor was Washington a member of Congress in 1776. We do know that delegate Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey most likely created the design of the first flag.

The myth began circulating in 1873, when the Betsy Ross story started appearing in national journals. In 1909, Canby's brother and nephew published a book, The Evolution of the American Flag, which immortalized Ross' place in American history.

To learn more and make your own five-sided star, visit "The Truth about Betsy Ross," from the Colonial Williamsburg Journal.