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March 29, 2008

Betsy Ross

Betsy Ross is cool because she sewed a really big American flag for George Washington, right?

Well, not exactly. We think she is cool, but not because of the myth around her making one of the first American flags.

Elizabeth 'Betsy' Griscom grew up in Philadelphia in a large Quaker family. By some accounts she learned to sew from her great-aunt Sarah, and she may also have learned some in her Quaker school. After school, Betsy's father apprenticed her to a local upholsterer. While she was there she fell in love with John Ross, another apprentice and a member of the Episcopal Christ Church. There was one tiny problem--interdenominational marriage was really really really frowned upon in Betsy's Quaker church. The penalty was called being "read out" and basically involved being booted out of the church and some standard issue shunning and shaming. But Betsy didn't let that stop her. She eloped with John and joined his church after being kicked out of hers and splitting with her family.

Betsy and John started their own upholstery business, a challenging thing made even tougher when the war broke out, slowing business down and making fabrics harder to get. John joined the Pennsylvania militia, where he was injured and died in 1776. Betsy kept the business going and it was soon after this that the meeting supposedly happened with George Washington, George Ross, and Robert Martin that resulted in the first American flag. The event is poorly documented so it's hard to tell exactly what happened, but after reading about Betsy's life we have no trouble believing that this part of the story could be true:
Considerable circumstantial evidence suggests that at this meeting, to "silence the men's protests that these new [five-pointed] stars would be unfamiliar and difficult for seamstresses to make, she folded a piece of paper, made a single scissor snip, and revealed a perfect five-pointed star."
After her husband died, Betsy returned to the Quakers, but this time she joined a new group that was known as the Free Quakers or Fighting Quakers. These were Quakers who broke away from the pacifist Quaker church because of their support for the war effort. She remarried and had two daughters. Oh, and she also dealt with soldiers occupying her house and helped to nurse injured British and American soldiers after the Battle of Germantown. Busy lady.

Husband #2, a sea captain, was captured by the British and died in prison in 1782. In 1783, Betsy married for a third time. She had five daughters with John Claypoole and he had the courtesy to give Betsy a break and wait until 1817 to die.

Betsy kept up her upholstery business through all of the drama in her life and continued working until 1827, when her daughter Susannah Satterthwaite took over the business. Betsy died in Philadelphia at the age of 84.

Here's one version of how the Betsy Ross flag story grew to epic proportions, from the great book Uppity Women of the New World by Vicki Leon (part of a great series of books that just tells lots of stories of real women kicking ass throughout history):
For most of her eighty-four years, Betsy valiantly carried on as caregiver, breadwinner, and parent, supporting herself by sewing. In 1777, she did whip up a couple of flags for the Philadelphia Navy, but there's no evidence that she made the first U.S. flag at George Washington's behest--or anyone's. No secret shopping trips to her upholstery shop by the congressional committee, either.

The whole warm and fuzzy story was concocted by her grandson Bill Canby, at the 1876 national centennial. In a speech, Bill asserted that his granny had made the first flag, and had told him about it on her deathbed forty years earlier. Even then, most people didn't buy it.

But the nation was about to celebrate its hundredth birthday, and needed some heartwarming history--fast. A Betsy Ross memorial association sprang up, soon selling a cool 2 million memberships at a dime each. In 1890, painter Charles Weisberger did a huge canvas of Betsy Ross showing her creation to the congressional committee. With this momentum, the myth took flight, finding its way like a computer virus into textbooks and women's histories. Betsy was extraordinary, but not in the way she's been labeled.

We agree. Betsy Ross is an inspiring woman and an important part of American history whether the whole story about the first flag is totally true or not. She buried three husbands and raised seven kids, learned a trade and kept a business going that supported herself and her children all through her life, and through it all it seems like she always stuck to her principles and did things her own way. Betsy Ross doesn't need George Washington to make her cool.

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