The name Betsy Ross and her story of making the first Stars and Stripes are well known today. In surveys of students from elementary school through college, she is better known than many leading figures of U.S. history.
She is a popular icon of American Culture. Her name and image have appeared on wrappings for cigars, bread and an array of merchandise. Her story has been recounted in thousands of books, articles and pamphlets. Her fame is perhaps only eclipsed by George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Even in fame, Betsy Ross strikes controversy. While she has admirers she has detractors. Sources state flatly that she indeed sewed the first thirteen star flag, while other sources dismiss her story as fiction, fable or even fraud. She is, as eminent flag historian Whitney Smith has noted, a phenomenon of American history. That one seemingly common woman should arouse such notice is amazing and a phenomenon worth examining.
Betsy Ross and her story were unknown until her grandson, William Canby, read a historical paper before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in March of 1870 which he entitled, “The History of the United States Flag.” In his narrative, Canby relates the family story of the making of the first thirteen star flag as it had been related to him by his grandmother and other family members.
He began his paper by explaining that he believed it important to preserve “every item of history relating to the origin of our beautiful national standard.” He went on to say that he had unpublished information from persons “now far advanced in years” that he wanted to “put on record.” The information was his family tradition that his mother and aunts, daughters of Betsy Ross, had recounted to him. He then goes on to tell of the search he made of other historical records about the origin of the flag hoping to find verification of his family traditions. He then admits that his “search was fruitless” in that he was unable to find any evidence in the historical record that would back up his family’s story of Betsy Ross and the making of the first thirteen star and thirteen stripe flag. Finally, while admitting that tradition is an “uncertain resource,” he argues that when a story is told by those who heard it first hand from the persons who experienced history, then it is “quite as reliable and often more so than the books.” He then went on to tell the family the story as he heard it from his aunts and from Betsy Ross, his grandmother, before her death. The details of the family story are lengthy as are the arguments for and against its correctness, and will need to be explained in future postings on flag-post.com.
To an unbiased reader, all this should seem reasonable and the story was accepted at face value by many. However, the family story of Betsy Ross and the flag has also been dismissed by others as pure myth. Some critics have even attacked William Canby personally and alleged his family made up the story to bring fame to an undeserving ancestor. John H. Fow, a critic writing in 1908, asserted that stories like the Betsy Ross account encourage people “to build ‘air castles’ and purchase old portraits to be palmed off on others as our ‘grandfather’ who [fought] in the Revolution, or our ‘grandmother’ who carried supplies to the troops at Valley Forge.” While historical sources have not been found to prove the claim of the Betsy Ross story, nothing proves that the story is a family fabrication or that William Canby’s effort was anything but an honest endeavor to put on the public record the family story which he believed to be true. If the contemporary historical record is silent about Betsy Ross, it is also silent about any other explanation of how the first example of the Stars and Stripes was created. The story deserves a fair and open minded hearing. Future posting in flag-post.com will attempt to do just that.