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The fascinating tale of Betsy Ross, from sewing Washington’s bed linens to Nike controversy

A rare female icon of the Revolutionary War, she is credited with creating the first American flag.

The 13-star flag is one of a number of symbols co-opted by some hate groups. The Post talked to flag expert Jeffrey Kohn to understand its controversial roots. (Video: Blair Guild, Allie Caren/The Washington Post)
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She was a single mother and a businesswoman. She was widowed twice before the age of 30 and crafted the bed linens George Washington slept on at Mount Vernon. Like many women during the American Revolution, Betsy Ross was just trying to get by. So she made flags.

The legend of Betsy Ross has captivated Americans for more than a century. She is credited with making the first American flag. Whether or not she really did, she is undoubtedly one of the few female figures to feature in Revolutionary War history.

By telling her story, Ross’s descendants cast light on the life of a woman who lived during a time when women were largely left out of the history books.

Her flag became the subject of controversy this week as we celebrate America’s independence: Nike halted the sale and production of sneakers that sport the Betsy Ross flag after former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick — a Nike spokesman — told the company the design was offensive, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The flag has been used at times by white-supremacist groups that idolize the period in American history when power was exclusive to white men, and women and people of color had no voice. There are photos of the white-supremacist group Aryan Nations using the flag in the 1980s, according to Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, though Nazi symbols and the Confederate flag are used more often than the original 13-star banner.

It is perhaps ironic then that the flag that harks back to a time of white male superiority is believed to have been crafted by a woman.

Born Elizabeth Griscom in 1752, Ross started her life in New Jersey and later moved with her family to Philadelphia. One of 17 children, she went to school until about the age of 11, when she began an apprenticeship with a Philadelphia upholsterer, John Webster, according to Lisa Moulder, director of the Betsy Ross House.

It was during her apprenticeship that she met the man who would become her first husband, John Ross. He was Anglican and she was a Quaker, and her faith did not allow for them to marry. So she and Ross eloped — traveling all the way across the Delaware River to wed at Hugg’s Tavern in Gloucester, N.J.

After they completed their apprenticeships, John and Betsy started their own upholstery business. Around that time, according to Moulder, they met George Washington, who was in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress in 1774. Washington “commissioned them to make a full set of bed hangings and pillows and mattresses for his home in Mount Vernon,” she said.

Word has it that a group of men, including Washington and John Ross’s uncle, visited Betsy in an upholstery shop and commissioned the original American flag. It was to be red, white and blue — that much hasn’t changed. But instead of 50 stars, there were only 13, one for each colony, organized in a circle.

According to the story published in some elementary school history books, Ross told Washington to revise the number of points on each star from six to five. As a “craftswoman,” Ross probably told Washington “that five-pointed stars were more practical, from a production standpoint, than the six-pointed stars he initially envisioned,” Marla Miller, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told The Washington Post.

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The men in this tale were meticulous in recording their own lives, but this particular encounter was never set down in writing. There are no receipts for the flag, but that doesn’t mean Ross didn’t craft it. She was making flags at the time: There’s evidence she was paid “a substantial sum of money” for a flag she crafted in 1777, according to historians at the Betsy Ross House. American troops flew several flags during the Revolutionary War, and there were specific flags for militia and naval units, flown to prevent an ally from opening fire from afar.

It was not until after Ross’s death in 1836 that she was popularized in American history and culture. Her grandson, William Canby, spoke to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870, sharing for the first time the story of Ross’s contributions to the flag. He had aunts, cousins and siblings sign affidavits testifying to the validity of her story.

According to Marc Leepson, a historian who wrote a book on the evolution of the American flag, it was around this time in the late 19th century that “what historians call the ‘cult of the flag,’” was born — “the almost-religious feeling that Americans have about the red, white and blue.”

It’s unclear whether Ross did this work out of patriotism, financial need or some combination of the two. “Betsy Ross is a representative of other just ordinary 18th-century working-class women who were just trying to make it during the founding of our nation,” Moulder said.

According to Miller, Ross was probably one among a number of people who contributed to the flag’s design.

By the time she was 30 years old, Ross had already been widowed twice. John Ross died about two years after they wed. She later married Joseph Ashburn, a mariner whose ship was captured by the British in 1781. He was charged with treason and “died of an unknown illness,” according to the Betsy Ross House.

John Claypoole, a prisoner alongside Ashburn who delivered the news of his death, eventually became Ross’s third husband. She continued to support America in its early years through her upholstery work and remained married to Claypoole until his death in 1817.

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