If you’re a struggling single mother trying to make ends meet in Colonial America in 1776 and the top dogs of the Continental Congress come knocking on your door for help, you’ve got a shot at something big.
That’s what happened for Betsy Ross, who is of course known today as the woman who made the first flag for our country. The story goes that sometime in spring of 1776, Betsy, a widow, was running a fledgling upholstery operation when George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross, the uncle of her later husband asked her to sew the first flag.
George Washington was not yet president of the United States but rather head of the Continental Army. Robert Morris, was a wealthy land owner. Betsy knew George from her local church in Philadelphia and had previously sewn embroidered ruffles for his shirts and cuffs at his request.
Apparently General Washington arrived at Betsy’s door with a rough design of the flag that included a six-pointed star. Prior to the creation of the Betsy Ross Flag, many of the existing colonies and military units were using different flags, including the Continental Navy’s rattlesnake flag with the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me,” and the Liberty Tree flag used by the navy, which featured a green pine tree on a white background.
Not surprisingly, because many colonists considered themselves British subjects prior to the war of independence, many of them used flags that resembled the Union Jack of Great Britain. In January of that same year before the idea to have Betsy create a flag for the United Colonies, the Continental Army was reorganized in accordance with a Congressional resolution, which placed American forces under George Washington’s control. On New Year’s Day the Continental Army was attempting to take back Boston which had been overcome by the British Army. In celebration, Washington ordered the Grand Union flag resembling the Union Jack hoisted above his base at Prospect Hill “in compliment of the United Colonies.”
Little did he know this display of the grand union flag signaled to the British that the colonists were ready to lay down their arms as it appeared to the loyalists to be a nod to King George who had been offering peace treaty terms to the colonists for their surrender. This could not have been further from the case, but it was soon recognized by the Continental Army that a new flag was direly needed.
Enter the seamstress and the single mom: 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, and the flag played a central role in heralding in the birth of a new nation.
During war for independence British soldiers are reported to have appropriated the home of Betsy Ross and used it to give their soldiers a temporary place to live. She lost two husbands during to the war for independence and her upholstery business suffered great economic challenges over its decades-long survival.
However, none of this would slow Betsy or her upholstery business down and it is said that once the soldiers moved on, Betsy was not only upholstering furniture and sewing ruffles on men’s shirts or ladies dresses but that she also wove cloth pouches, which were used to hold gunpowder for the Continentals.
Clearly Betsy Ross’s flag represents the birth of a great nation and her handiwork laid the footprint for the creation of a a flag for freedom and independence that stood to unite the colonists under one national symbol. But she is also remembered for her pioneering spirit and tenacious ability to run a business and care for her family in times of great struggle.