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Who is Betsy Ross?

Betsy Ross is often celebrated as the seamstress who crafted the first American flag, a symbol of unity and freedom. Her story intertwines with the fabric of U.S. history, suggesting her role in shaping national identity. But how much of her tale is legend, and how much is truth? Unravel the threads of Ross's life with us and discover her true legacy.
Y. Chen
Y. Chen

Betsy Ross was the woman best known in American history as having sewn the first American flag. The red, white, and blue emblem of freedom is still her living legacy, and attests to her triumphant place in history. She lived a life challenged by adversity, having been disowned by her religious organization and surviving three husbands. However, she also bore seven daughters and maintained a family business until shortly before her death at eighty-four years old.

Betsy Ross, whose birth name was Elizabeth Griscom, was called Betsy for short. She was the youngest of seventeen children to parents who were members of the Religious Society of Friends. Its members at that time were also known as the Quakers. Betsy Ross was educated at Quaker schools, where the curriculum for young ladies at the time consisted largely of writing, homemaking, and sewing.

The modern American flag.
The modern American flag.

In 1773, Betsy met John Ross, and the two eventually eloped. John Ross was a fellow apprentice and a clergyman of the Episcopal church. William Franklin, who was Benjamin Franklin's son, read the vows to them in New Jersey. Because interdenominational marriages were prohibited at the time by the Quaker church, Betsy and her husband were rejected by the Quakers. The upholstery business they started together was relatively unsuccessful because of the American Revolution. John was killed in a gunpowder explosion while fighting under the Pennsylvania militia.

The Betsy Ross House courtyard is located near the Liberty Bell.
The Betsy Ross House courtyard is located near the Liberty Bell.

In the summer of 1776, Betsy Ross was approached by the "Committee of Three," a self-appointed group consisting of George Ross, Robert Morris and George Washington, who was a fellow parishioner at the Christ Church. They asked her to sew the first American flag based on a design sketched by Washington. Betsy did this, but made one alteration to the original design. She changed the stars from six-pointed to five-pointed ones.

Betsy Ross and her husband were married by Benjamin Franklin's son.
Betsy Ross and her husband were married by Benjamin Franklin's son.

The Betsy Ross story is still considered to be a legend by many. There are not many contemporary affirmations that the committee meeting actually existed. Many of the accounts were passed down through oral affidavits of blood relatives. Betsy's grandson, William Canby, made the story public through a reading in front of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania State Navy Board, however, has also claimed that they commissioned her for work in 1777.

Betsy Ross made the first American flag based on sketches by George Washington.
Betsy Ross made the first American flag based on sketches by George Washington.

Betsy Ross was in favor of the war, and joined the Fighting Quakers. She later married Joseph Ashburn, and the pair had two daughters. Unfortunately, British soldiers accosted Joseph on his way to procuring supplies and was incarcerated in Old Mill prison, where he passed away in 1782. A year later, Betsy married John Claypoole, a longtime friend, and together, they had five daughters. In 1817, Claypoole died after suffering years of chronic illness.

Despite the hardships she endured, Betsy Ross operated her upholstery business until she retired, at which time one of her daughters took over. She died in Philadelphia and was laid to rest at the Free Quaker burial ground. Later, Ross' remains were moved to the Betsy Ross House courtyard, located a few blocks from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This final resting place is one of the three most visited tourist sites in Philadelphia.

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    • The modern American flag.
      The modern American flag.
    • The Betsy Ross House courtyard is located near the Liberty Bell.
      The Betsy Ross House courtyard is located near the Liberty Bell.
    • Betsy Ross and her husband were married by Benjamin Franklin's son.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Betsy Ross and her husband were married by Benjamin Franklin's son.
    • Betsy Ross made the first American flag based on sketches by George Washington.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Betsy Ross made the first American flag based on sketches by George Washington.