Betsy would often tell her children, grandchildren, relatives, and friends of a fateful day, late in May of 1776, when three members of a secret committee from the Continental Congress came to call upon her. Those representatives, George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross asked her to sew the first flag. George Washington was then the head of the Continental Army. Robert Morris, an owner of vast amounts of land, was perhaps the wealthiest citizen in the Colonies. Colonel George Ross was a respected man of Philadelphia and also the uncle of her late husband, John Ross.
Naturally, Betsy Ross already knew George Ross as she had married his nephew. Betsy was also acquainted with the great General Washington. Not only did they both worship at Christ Church in Philadelphia, but Betsy's pew was next to George and Martha Washington's pew. Her daughter recalled, "That she was previously well acquainted with Washington, and that he had often been in her house in friendly visits, as well as on business. That she had embroidered ruffles for his shirt bosoms and cuffs, and that it was partly owing to his friendship for her that she was chosen to make the flag.".
In June 1776, brave Betsy was a widow struggling to run her own upholstery business. Upholsterers in colonial America not only worked on furniture but did all manner of sewing work, which for some included making flags. According to Betsy, General Washington showed her a rough design of the flag that included a six-pointed star. Betsy, a standout with the scissors, demonstrated how to cut a five-pointed star in a single snip.
In Boston, on that New Year's Day, the Loyalists (supporters of Britain) had been circulating a recent King George speech, offering the Continental forces favorable terms if they laid down their arms. These Loyalists were convinced that the King's speech had impressed the Continentals into surrendering — as a sign of the Continentals' "surrender," the Loyalists mistook the flying of the Grand Union flag over Prospect Hill as a show of respect to King George. In fact, however, the Continentals knew nothing of the speech until later. Washington wrote in a letter dated January 4, "By this time, I presume, they begin to think it strange we have not made a formal surrender of our lines."
Obviously, a new flag was needed.
According to Betsy Ross's dates and sequence of events, in May the Congressional Committee called upon her at her shop. She finished the flag either in late May or early June 1776. In July, the Declaration of Independence was read aloud for the first time at Independence Hall. Amid celebration, bells throughout the city tolled, heralding the birth of a new nation.
Much suffering and loss of life would result, however, before the United States would completely sever ties with Britain. Betsy Ross herself lost two husbands to the Revolutionary War. During the conflict the British appropriated her house to lodge soldiers. Through it all she managed to run her own upholstery business (which she continued operating for several decades after the war) and after the soldiers left, she wove cloth pouches which were used to hold gunpowder for the Continentals. (See The Story of Betsy Ross's Life for more information.)
On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress, seeking to promote national pride and unity, adopted the national flag. "Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.".
So, who designed the flag? In 1776 you couldn’t go into a store and buy a flag off the rack. Back then, flags were made in one of two ways. Since most Flags had a naval use, you could go to a ship’s chandlery - a store that outfitted ships - and the chandler would contract with a sail maker or in many cases an upholsterer to make the flag. An upholster in colonial times had more functions that what we typically think of today. Besides working on furniture, they also made flags and other military equipment. This is where the legend of Betsy Ross comes in to play.
We know that Betsy Ross was an upholsterer who made flags for the Pennsylvania Navy. What we don’t know is did she really design the first flag? There is a great deal of controversy about this.
In 1870, Betty Ross’ Grandson was addressing an Historic society in Philadelphia and said that his grandmother told him that she met with George Washington and others and she designed the flag. But did she design it or did Francis Hopkinson design it?
Francis Hopkinson was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence from the state of New Jersey. The only evidence of who made the flag is a bill that was submitted to congress by Francis Hopkinson that said for designing the flag, you owe me two casks of ale. What we don’t have is a picture of that flag, a written description of the flag, or even a sketch of the flag. So, the mystery remains.
Regardless of these facts, the legend lives on and the first flag of the Revolutionary Period is referred to as “The Betsy Ross” flag…the pattern of stars on the blue field is known by three names, The Betsy Ross Pattern, The Philadelphia Pattern, or The Single Wreath Pattern. The blue field on the flag also goes by three names - the field, the union, or the canton. Because congress did not set the specifics of where the field would be or how the star pattern should look like, or how many points the star would have, during this period, and up until 1912, the stars could be arranged in any manner that a flag maker would choose.
When congress put together the notion of the flag, they blended the already established design of alternating stripes of red on white signifying the united colonies and a blue field with 13 stars (just like the Washington’s Headquarters flag). Many people believe this may have been the flag that Francis Hopkins designed, but once again this is only speculation.
This pattern is known as the Cowpens pattern. Another well-known flag during this time was the Easton Flag. Interesting design, right? But remember, Congress did not specify where all the elements should be placed. After the Revolutionary War ended, our country wrights a new constitution. We elect Geo Washington president and in 1792 we bring in two new states – Vermont and Kentucky. This begs the question, what do we do with the flag?
Because the original flag act called for 13 stripes and 13 stars to represent the 13 colonies, what do we do to signify the adding of two new states to the Union? At this time, Congress passes the 2nd flag act and it states that from now on we would add one stripe and one star for each new state. This new 15 star and 15 stripe flag is known as The Star-Spangled Banner. It is this flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem. After the War of 1812 we were adding more states again and as we incorporated more stars and stripes into the design, our flag was starting to look a little funny.
So, in 1818, Congress passed the 3rd of the three major flag acts. It stated that the design was to go back to the original configuration of 13 alternating stripes of red on white, representing the 13 original colonies, but that we would add one star for each new state. However, once again, it did not specify what pattern the stars should be arranged in or the amount of points that were to be on the star. So, we had many variations of flag design during this time.