History of the American Flag

Betsy Ross and the American Flag (May 1776)

Betsy would often tell her children, grandchildren, relatives, and friends of the fateful day when three members of a secret committee from the Continental Congress came to call upon her. Those representatives, George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross, asked her to sew the first American flag. This meeting occurred in her home some time late in May 1776. George Washington was then the head of the Continental Army. Robert Morris, an owner of vast amounts of land, was perhaps the wealthiest citizen in the Colonies. Colonel George Ross was a respected Philadelphian and also the uncle of her late husband, John Ross.

Betsy Ross already knew George Ross as she had married his nephew. Furthermore, Betsy was also acquainted with General Washington. Not only did they both worship at Christ Church in Philadelphia, but Betsy's pew was next to George and Martha Washington's pew. Her daughter recalled, "That she was previously well acquainted with Washington, and that he had often been in her house in friendly visits, as well as on business. That she had embroidered ruffles for his shirt bosoms and cuffs, and that it was partly owing to his friendship for her that she was chosen to make the flag."

In June 1776, Betsy Ross was a widow struggling to run her own upholstery business. Upholsterers in colonial America not only worked on furniture but did all manner of sewing work, which for some included making flags. According to Betsy, General Washington showed her a rough design of the flag that included a six-pointed star. Betsy, a standout with the scissors, demonstrated how to cut a five-pointed star in a single snip. Impressed, the committee entrusted Betsy with making our first flag.

Until that time, colonies and militias used many different flags. Some are famous, such as the "Rattlesnake Flag" used by the Continental Navy, with its venomous challenge, "Don't Tread on Me."

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Another naval flag had a green pine tree on a white background. The one shown here is the "Liberty Tree" flag.

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Other flags were quite similar to Britain's Union Jack or incorporated elements of it. A picture of the "Grand Union" flag is shown here.

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This is not surprising. Many colonists considered themselves loyal subjects of Britain — many colonists came from Britain, and King George III ruled over the colonies.


On January 1, 1776, the Continental Army was reorganized in accordance with a Congressional resolution which placed American forces under George Washington's control. On that New Year's Day the Continental Army was laying siege to Boston which had been taken over by the British Army. Washington ordered the Grand Union flag hoisted above his base at Prospect Hill "in compliment of the United Colonies."

In Boston, on that New Year's Day, the Loyalists (supporters of Britain) had been circulating a recent King George speech, offering the Continental forces favorable terms if they laid down their arms. These Loyalists were convinced that the King's speech had impressed the Continentals into surrendering — as a sign of the Continentals' "surrender," the Loyalists mistook the flying of the Grand Union flag over Prospect Hill as a show of respect to King George. In fact, however, the Continentals knew nothing of the speech until later. Washington wrote in a letter dated January 4, "By this time, I presume, they begin to think it strange we have not made a formal surrender of our lines."

Obviously a new flag was needed.

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. Amid celebration, bells throughout the city tolled, heralding the birth of a new nation.

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On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress, seeking to promote national pride and unity, adopted the national flag. "Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."

The Thirteen Original Colonies

The original thirteen colonies were Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

Facts of the Thirteen Colonies

Connecticut: 5th to become a state 1788; settled by Puritans from Massachusetts; state laws were model for US Constitution; nickname is Constitution State

Delaware: 1st state 12-7-1787; Delaware's Blue Hen army (named for their leader's pet fighting Blue Hen rooster) turned away advancing British in initial skirmish with great speed and bravery; the 13-star flag was flown in battle here first

Georgia: Last colony settled but was 4th to ratify Constitution and become state; named after King George II

Maryland: Named for Queen Henrietta Maria of England; Known for its valiant army; statehood 4-28-1788; part of state became Washington D C

Massachusetts: Plymouth Rock home; became a state 2-6-1788; once had a carved wooden codfish on the wall of the State House because codfish were a big state industry

New Hampshire: named for Hampshire County in England; became state 6-21-1788; was heavily explored by both French and English

New Jersey: Land was given to the Governor of the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel for this colony; it would be the site of over 100 battles and skirmishes before the Revolution ended

New York: Named for the Duke of York (brother of King Charles II); statehood 7-26-1788; US Congress met here after Revolution

North Carolina: Home of Roanoke Island's Lost Colony; first child born in America was John White's granddaughter Virginia on 8-18-1587; statehood 11-21-1789

Pennsylvania: means Penn's Woods, named for William Penn; nickname Keystone State because it is the center of the arch of thirteen colonies; 2nd state 12-12-1787; settled by various religious groups who greatly enhanced colonial life with inventions such as the Conestoga wagon

Rhode Island: smallest colony and state; not an island, was maybe named for Isle of Rhodes in Aegean Sea; 1st declare independence from England but last of thirteen to become a state because of concerns over being fairly represented in spite of size

South Carolina: once part of "Carolana" with NC; nickname Palmetto State because fortress of palms kept British warship away from Charleston harbor in 1776 battle; statehood 5-23-1778

Virginia: home to four of the first five US presidents, and eventually home to four more; site of 1st permanent settlement in Jamestown 1607

The Evolution of Old Glory


By law, a star is added to the U.S.A. Flag on the Fourth of July following the admission of the state or states bringing about these changes. No star is identified with a specific State, and there is no law designating the permanent arrangement of the stars. However, since 1912, whenever a new State has been added, the new design has been announced by Presidential order.

Below we have listed the dates these flags were "Official" and which States were added representing the new stars. No flag ever becomes obsolete, each is still a legal flag and is entitled to the same respect shown the current flag.

Flag Timeline

States and their dates of admission are shown in bold red.

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