Tracing the origins of the legend surrounding America’s first flag

Until recently, the story behind the original American flag’s stripes and stars was relegated to children’s tales and legends.

The story goes that Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress, designed the flag in 1776, when George Washington and two representatives from the Continental Congress, one of whom was her husband’s uncle, visited her store. And it claims that Ross suggested to Washington that his square and six-point star flag design should instead be rectangular and sport five-point stars — a tale repeated and popularized by the testimony of her children and grandchildren.

Historian Marla Miller, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the director of its Public History program, analyzes the legend’s historical kernels and explores the life of the iconic seamstress in her book, Betsy Ross and the Making of America. 

She examines Ross’s life within the greater context of her family’s history — setting roots in Philadelphia and playing an active role in its political and religious affairs across six generations. She also contextualizes Ross’s experiences within the political, social and economic upheavals the city weathered during the late 18th century.

Miller uses congressional and Philadelphia records, receipts and newspaper articles to assess the validity of the legend. Was it plausible that Washington visited Ross’s store in 1776? It is, Miller concludes, considering the general visited Philadelphia frequently that year and was preparing the army’s arsenal and supplies, though the visit was undocumented. Could Ross have recommended the five-point star design, as the legend suggests? Perhaps she did, as the five-point star was a Masonic symbol and her first two husbands were active Mason members.

No records of the Continental Congress refer to Ross or the flag she is credited with creating. Miller notes that the accounts of George Washington visiting Ross’s shop are not preserved in public records but in a series of affidavits sworn to by various members of the Ross family in the last quarter of the 19th century, almost 100 years after the flag was created. But she confirms that Ross was paid to make flags early on in the war effort for Pennsylvania and United States troops, and thus concludes that “the flag, like the revolution it represents, was the work of many hands.”

Though this conclusion neither confirms nor denies Ross’s involvement in devising the flag of the United States, Miller’s thorough analysis both challenges Ross’s family members’ accounts and honors them. Her reluctance to give a final simple yes or no answer, combined with the book’s detailed annotation, also reflects her comprehensive and conservative consideration and exhaustive research.

Miller affirms, however, that the story of Betsy Ross looms larger than her famous stitches and individual life. 

Ross was part of a complicated family whose members were active in the Quaker community, trade groups and political caucuses. Miller devotes much of the book to events that took place before and after Ross’s lifetime. For example, the reader meets Andrew Griscom, Betsy’s great-grandfather, who emigrated to New Jersey in 1680 seeking religious toleration, and George Ross, one of Betsy’s uncles through her marriage to John Ross, who signed the Declaration of Independence. The reader also becomes acquainted with Rebecca Griscom, Betsy’s mother, who challenged her family’s authority and Quaker faith when she eloped in 1741, and William Canby, Betsy’s grandson, who delivered the 1870 lecture that popularized the legend of the first flag, 34 years after his grandmother died. In this way, Miller depicts a family pulled in different religious, economic and political directions over the generations, as different members cultivated their own, and sometimes conflicting, ties and interests.

While Miller’s attempt to document the influence of the Ross clan is laudable, at times the book’s emphasis on detail detracts from its narrative flow. For example, at the outset she uses four pages to describe the beds and blinds in Ross’s great-grandparents’ home, and she delineates inconsequential proceedings at elegant state dinners in Philadelphia in the 1760s at length. Both dilute the character and plot development, add further bulk to the already meaty book and make for a more tedious read.

Though the litany of names and family members’ contributions meanders at certain points, and the supporting historical figures are not as developed as they could be, Miller’s exhaustive effort to piece together their different contributions sheds light on Ross’s legacy. It elevates her legend from a pithy folklore to a family’s calculated attempt to connect her legacy with the efforts to shape the city of Philadelphia and the young nation.

In doing so, Miller’s title, Betsy Ross and the Making of America aptly conveys the book’s essence and weaves together its different emphases: While it is at once a story about the iconic seamstress famous for stitching the first flag of the United States, like the flag itself, it tells a larger story about how this legend fits into her larger family narrative and reflects the experiences of the artisans who shaped the young nation.