Patriot, Entrepreneur & Abolitionist – The Intriguing Life of Betsy Ross
13 white stars circling a field of blue along with the classic red and white stripes is commonly recognized as the “Betsy Ross Flag”. For 243 years, this flag has been a symbol of patriotism, liberty, and independence.
However, what do you really know about the seamstress who was given credit for sewing the first American flag?
A beloved figure from history, Betsy Ross’ association with the flag representing America’s 13 colonies and the belief that liberty is worth fighting for – has elevated Betsy Ross to an American original.
Some historians question the authenticity of Ross’ contributions and suggest that she might have been just one of many individuals who possibly created America’s first flag. In fact, there is no absolute proof that Ross did, or did not, sew the flag that she has became famous for.
What is undoubtedly true, is that the life and the legend of how our nation’s historic flag became a symbol of our republic is uniquely intertwined with the life of an amazingly strong and determined woman, Betsy Ross.
History tells us that Betsy Ross was a successful female entrepreneur at a time when few women ran businesses on their own. Her shop in Philadelphia provided Ross with the opportunity to use her talents at needlework to support herself and her family. She was definitely highly skilled, hard-working, and only retired at the age of 76 . She could upholster a chair as easily as she could sew a uniform for recruits joining the Continental Army and was determined to make a success of her business.
According to Ross’ grandson and other Ross family members, Betsy Ross was commissioned to sew the first flag of the United States in the summer of 1776 when a committee that included none other than George Washington met with the seamstress to discuss the proposed flag’s design.
While some historians question the exact date when the flag was designed and some even question if Ross was one of many women who may have worked to produce our Nation’s first flag, Betsy Ross has become a symbol of the contributions to the founding of America and has remained a role model for school children, especially for young girls, for generations.
If you could step back in time to 1776 you’d find Betsy Ross at 239 Arch Street in Philadelphia – just a few blocks walk from what today is known as Independence Hall.
Born Elizabeth Griscom, Betsy’s first few years were spent in New Jersey before her large family (Betsy was the 8th of 17 children born to parents Samuel and Rebecca Griscom) moved to Philadelphia.
Betsy’s family were Quakers and followed the tenets of that faith including striving to live with simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship. While most Quakers had supported the colonial protests against “taxation without representation”, they were pacifists and against shedding blood in battle for political purposes. By 1776, the Quakers had for the most part taken a stand for neutrality in the looming war between the British and the American colonies.
It is interesting to note that Quakers in colonial America were firmly against slavery and called for all slaves to be set free and were active in the Abolitionist Movement. Between their opposition to slavery and their neutrality during the Revolutionary War, many felt that Quakers could not be trusted and they not only were persecuted by the Loyalists who supported the British King, but were ostracized by those who supported the revolution and even accused of treason.
After she finished her education at Philadelphia’s Quaker School for Children, Betsy was taken on as an apprentice by John Webster who ran an upholstery business in Philadelphia. She worked hard to learn her trade and became adept at not only coverings for furniture but in sewing curtains, tablecloths, bed linens, and every kind of home textile.
In 1773 Betsy, against the wishes of her family, eloped in order to marry John Ross who was not a Quaker. John Ross’ father was a rector at Christ Church in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the American Episcopal Church. Interestingly, worshipers at Christ Church would number some of America’s Founding Fathers including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Betsy’s decision to marry John Ross, a man outside her Quaker faith, led her to being shunned by others in the Quaker community. Tragically, after only two years of marriage, Betsy was widowed at the age of 24 when her husband John died after joining the Pennsylvania Militia.
Upon John’s death, Betsy Ross continued to run the small upholstery shop that she and her late husband had established together before he volunteered to fight in the Revolutionary War. In addition to her usual jobs, Betsy used her sewing talents to help the Continental Army by mending tents, sewing uniforms and, as legend tells us, the first American flag.
Betsy’s life during and after the Revolutionary War was not an easy one. Following John Ross’ death, she married a sea captain, Joseph Ashburn, and they had two daughters, one of whom they named Zilla. Betsy’s second husband Joseph died after his ship was captured by the British and, like many American sailors at the time, he was charged with treason. Tragically, Betsy’s infant daughter Zilla died at the age of nine months compounding her grief.
In 1783, Betsy was married again and, thankfully, enjoyed a partnership with husband John Claypoole for 34 years. During their marriage, she gave birth to five daughters. Like most women in Colonial America, life was not easy. Philadelphia at that time had waves of malaria, scarlet fever, smallpox, and influenza and medial care was, at its best, scarce and often not effective. Betsy’s parents and her sister had all died within days of each other from yellow fever. Betsy stepped in to raise her niece. In later years, Betsy also took in her widowed daughters and her grandchildren.
Betsy Ross, however, was a strong and courageous woman. She defied her family to marry the man she loved. She endured the loss of two husbands who had fallen while serving in the Revolutionary War. She lost two children and other family to ravages of disease. She was an entrepreneur and ran her own business at a time when most women were homemakers. She dealt with the challenges of going blind later in life, and perhaps, most importantly, she stood up for her moral values against both tyranny and slavery.
This remarkable woman, who is remembered so fondly in American history, passed away at the home of her daughter, Jane, in Philadelphia in 1836 at the age of 84 years having led the most remarkable life.
In 1876 the home of Betsy Ross was declared a historic landmark and is a favorite destination of schoolchildren and history buffs when visiting Philadelphia. The Independence Hall Association, a private organization that has supported and advised Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia since 1942 summarizes the life of this incredible American woman with these words:
“Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. When we view the flag, we think of liberty, freedom, pride, and Betsy Ross. The American flag flies on the moon, sits atop Mount Everest, is hurtling out in space. The flag is how America signs her name. It is no surprise that Betsy Ross has become one of the most cherished figures of American History.”