Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: How Betsy Ross Became Famous





[Laurel Thatcher Ulrich teaches history at Harvard University. Her latest book is Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007).]

For scholars, the story of how Betsy Ross made the first American flag is about as credible as Parson Weems's fable about little George Washington

For scholars, the story of how Betsy Ross made the first American flag is about as credible as Parson Weems's fable about little George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. Yet for more than a century, it has been an established part of American education. Among the general public, it shows no signs of going away.

The story emerged in the last third of the nineteenth century as the United States was redefining itself after the Civil War. In 1870, Ross's grandson, William J. Canby, read a paper before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in which he claimed that in June of 1776, George Washington and two other members of the Continental Congress visited his grandmother in her shop on Arch Street in Philadelphia. The men, according to Canby, brought a rough sketch of a striped flag with thirteen stars in a blue field. The stars had six points. Having a better idea, Ross folded a piece of paper into neat triangles, and "with a single clip of the scissors" produced a five-pointed star. Within days, she had completed the first American flag.

Unable to find documents supporting his tale, Canby secured affidavits from aged relatives. These confirmed the details just as he had told them. From the first, scholars were skeptical. George Henry Preble included Canby's account (along with virtually every other scrap of oral tradition that came his way) in his detailed and carefully documented 1872 history of the flag. But he was blunt about Canby's credibility. For him, as for most historians, the problem was chronology. "Mr. Canby contends that the stars and stripes were in common if not general use soon after the Declaration of Independence, nearly a year before the resolution of Congress proclaiming them the flag of the United States of America; but I cannot agree with him." Writing in 1908, John Fow dismissed the Betsy Ross legend as "ridiculous." A 1942 history catalogued it under "More Fictions and Myths." In the 1950s David Eggenberg concluded that the "grand total of provable facts in the Betsy Ross legend" amounted to two: that Betsy was a twice-widowed patriot needlewoman of Philadelphia and that she was paid to make Pennsylvania naval flags in 1777. "Of such flimsy material are constructed the cherished legends of American history," he wrote....



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