Betsy Ross

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For the lieutenant governor of New York, see Betsy McCaughey Ross.
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Sewing the first US flag

Betsy Ross (January 1, 1752 - January 30, 1836) is reputed to have sewed the first American flag.


Early years

She was born Elizabeth ("Betsy") Griscom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was the eighth-born out of the seventeen children of Samuel and Rebecca Griscom who were both Quakers (her father was a master builder). Betsy attended Quaker schools where she learned reading, writing and a trade (probably sewing). This would have helped her in an apprenticeship as an upholsterer which in that period performed all types of sewing jobs, not just finishing furniture.

First marriage

While working at her job, she fell in love with another apprentice, John Ross who was the son of an Episcopal assistant rector at Christ Church Pennsylvania and was himself a member of the Episcopal clergy. As the Quakers disapproved strongly of interdenominational marriages, the couple eloped across the Delaware River to New Jersey in 1773 where they were married by William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's son. The couple were subsequently disowned by the Quaker church.

Less than two years later, they started their own upholstering business. However, their business was badly affected by the American Revolutionary War with fabric being hard to obtain and business slow. John joined the Pennsylvania militia and was mortally wounded in an gunpowder explosion in 1776, after which Betsy took full charge of the upholstering business.

Legend of sewing the first flag

According to legend, in June, 1776 she received a visit from George Washington, George Ross and Robert Morris of the Continental Congress. She had met George Washington through their mutual worship at Christ Church (and she had sewed buttons for him previously) and George Ross was John's uncle. They announced that they were a "Committee of three" (perhaps self-appointed, under the circumstances) and showed her a suggested design, which was drawn up by Washington in pencil. The design had 6-pointed stars and Betsy suggested 5-pointed stars instead. The flag was sewn by Ross in her parlor. It was this flag that flew when the Declaration of Independence was read aloud at Independence Hall on July 8, 1776.

No contemporary record of this meeting was made; the information is based solely on oral affadavits from her daughter and other relatives, and made public in 1870 by her grandson William J. Canby in a paper read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. There is no further supporting documentation that Betsy Ross was otherwise involved in federal flag design although the Pennsylvania State Navy Board did commission her for work in making "ships colors & c."

Subsequent career

After John's death, Betsy joined the "Fighting Quakers" which, unlike traditional Quakers, supported the war effort. In June 1777, she married sea captain Joseph Ashburn at Old Swedes Church in Philadelphia. British soldiers forcibly occupied their house when they controlled the city in 1777.

They had two daughters together. Captain Ashburn was captured by the British on a trip to procure supplies and was sent to Old Mill Prison, where he died in March 1782 several months after the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown.

In May 1783 she married John Claypoole, an old friend who had told her of Captain Ashburn's death. The couple had five daughters together. He died in 1817 after years of ill health. She continued working in her upholstery business until 1827. After her retirement, she moved in with her married daughter Susannah Satterthwaite, who continued to operate the business.

She died in Philadelphia at the age of 84 and was buried at the Free Quaker burial ground; later her remains were removed to Mt. Moriah Cemetery; today her remains are located in the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House.

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