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Weisgerber’s Picture

Many of us have grown up to believe Betsy Ross created and sewed the first American flag, in the iteration that our current flag evolved from. This is now widely disputed, but here is how the legend goes.

George Washington was a frequent visitor to the home of Mrs. Ross before receiving command of the army. She embroidered his shirt ruffles and did many other things for him. He knew her skill with a needle. Now the General of the Continental Army, George Washington appeared on Mrs. Ross’s doorstep around the first of June 1776, with two representatives of Congress, Colonel Ross, and Robert Morris. They asked that she make a flag according to a rough drawing they carried with them. At Mrs. Ross’s suggestion, Washington redrew the flag design in pencil in her back parlor to employ stars of five points instead of six. The six-pointed stars were on the Francis Hopkinson version, who is the man historians believe created the American flag. (“Her version” of the flag for the new republic was not used until six years later.)

This version of the American flag’s birth came out in 1870 by Ross’s grandson, William J. Canby. He told this story to a meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Since then historians have searched for verification of this account. What is not disputed and in the archived document of the minutes of the State Navy Board of Pennsylvania for May 29, 1777, “An order on William Webb to Elizabeth Ross for fourteen pounds twelve shillings, and two pence, for making ship’s colors, &c, put into Richards store.” The minutes show that Ross made ship’s colors for Pennsylvania state ships.

The reason why many of us believe the Betsy Ross story can be summed up with better marketing by Ross’s family. After William Canby died, his brother George Canby and nephew Lloyd Balderson published the book, The Evolution of the American Flag, in 1909. Among other things, the authors reproduced a painting by Charles H. Weisgerber depicting the alleged meeting of the committee of Congress with Betsy Ross. The picture, entitled Birth of Our Nation’s Flag, is a composite portrait made up of pictures of her granddaughters and other descendants. Weisgerber took liberties with history by painting the stars in the flag in a circle. This painting stirred a great deal of public interest in the subject when it was first exhibited, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. But now we know that while the picture is beautiful, it is also fictional.

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