Perhaps one of the most fabled females of early American (ie United States) history is Betsy Ross. Legend has her designing the American flag, consisting of a ring of stars representing the states as well as thirteen stripes representing the colonies that started the fight. Debate over the actual designer remains, as its largely thought that Ms. Ross did not in fact design that flag. Still, I thought it would be interesting to look into the life of the woman legend has claimed.
Betsy was born Elizabeth Griscom on January 1, 1752 in the British colony of Pennsylvania. She had sixteen siblings, although only nine of the seventeen children of Samuel and Rebecca Griscom survived childhood. She was the middle child, born eight. The Griscoms brought up their children in a Quaker discipline, common in the colony. Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn (the state’s name means Penn’s woods) who was a Quaker who happened to have an in with the Crown. The first settlement was in Philadelphia, where Betsy would be born 70 years after its founding in 1682. The Quaker foundation of the colony would affect its politics and decisions well into the founding of the United States.
Betsy was educated at a Quaker run state school before apprenticing as an upholsterer under William Webster. She learned how to make and repair several different textiles such as uniforms, table cloths, bed covers, umbrellas and others. It was during this apprenticeship she met fellow apprentice John Ross. The two fell in love and later eloped in 1773. Betsy’s family did not approve as John was an Episcopalian and Betsy found herself expelled from her childhood church. She found a new church family with John’s church, where she met some of the founding members of the United States.
John’s uncle George Ross, Jr was one of the founding members – he signed the declaration of Independence for the state of Pennsylvania.
Betsy and John’s marriage was unfortunately short. The two had started a business as upholsterers, but when war broke out in 1775, John was called into action as a member of the local militia. He would be killed in action, rumored to be involving a gunpowder explosion. Betsy continued the business, repairing uniforms and making materials such as tents and blankets for the troops. She would often do projects for members of the Continental congress, including George Washington.
Betsy remarried in 1777, but once again, the marriage was not a long one. Her husband was a mariner named Joseph Ausburn and he was taken captive by the British Navy and died in a prison in England where he was being held under the charge of Treason (as having ‘American’ citizenship was not recognized at the time). They had two daughters, named Zillia (who died at 9 months) and Eliza.
She was informed about her husband’s passing in 1780 by John Claypoole, who had met Joseph during his time at the Old Mill prison. John would become her third husband in 1783. She would have another five daughters with him, named Clarissa, Susanna, Jane Rachel and Harriet. The two would return to Betsy’s childhood sect of Quaker, although their new church was a less pacifistic one.
During the revolution, Betsy was one of several people hired to make flags for the Pennsylvanian Navy. During that time, each colony/state/commonwealth had their own military. There was no true national arms. This would continue to be the style till the late 1800s when the military became more federally focused and less state-by-state.
She continued to live in Philadelphia which by 1790 had become the first capital of the young nation. The city would face a yellow fever outbreak in the early 1790s which would hit Betsy’s family hard. Her parents and her older sister Deborah all died from the disease. She became the guardian of her niece, and the house became crowded as her daughter and grandchildren moved back in. She continued to run her business with her daughter’s help before retiring and handing it over.
As she aged, Betsy’s eyesight failed her, and by 1833 she was blind. She spent the last few years of her life living with her daughter Jane, before dying in her sleep on January 30, 1836 at the age of 84.
The legend of Betsy’s involvement in the making of the US Flag was started in 1870, 34 years after her death. Her grandson William J. Canby related the tale of how his grandmother was approached by General Washington and two other members of the Congress to create a flag based on a sketch they carried with them. Unfortunately, historical investigation into the matter has brought no evidence from the papers of anyone involved to support the story.
Betsy was involved with the creation of a flag, though. In May of 1777, a record of a payment to Elizabeth Ross for the making of a flag for the Pennsylvanian navy. At the time of the American Revolution (and common during the Civil War as well), each colony/state had their own military. In fact that would become a problem later when national security necessitated a national focused army.
It is possible that she discussed the flag’s creation, but it’s largely thought that she probably was not involved in the actual creation of the flag. At least not the one her grandson laid claim to. Still, she gets celebrated as the woman who created our first flag, instead of the anonymous creator or the later Mary Pickersgill who made the flag that inspired The Star-Spangled Banner.