The legend of Betsy Ross is filled with mystery. In fact, her role in the founding of this country has evolved over time turning her into an almost mythical figure. As such, it is difficult to definitively claim certain actions allegedly taken by Ross herself. However, Ross, in fact, contributed greatly to the American war effort during the Revolutionary War and helped to shape the founding of the country in her own way.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom was born on January 1, 1752, into a large Quaker family in Gloucester City, New Jersey. The eighth of seventeen children, she was only one of nine siblings that lived to adulthood.
At the age of three, Elizabeth and her family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she attended a traditional Quaker school. As a young girl, she was taught how to sew by her great aunt. This talent naturally allowed Griscom to gain an apprenticeship under an upholsterer in Philadelphia after finishing her primary education from a Quaker school.
During her apprenticeship in Philadelphia, Elizabeth met John Ross at an Anglican church and the two soon fell in love. The couple ran away to get married in 1773. As a result of marrying out of the Quaker faith, the now Elizabeth Ross was shunned by her family. However, the Ross's soon opened up their very own upholstery shop in Philadelphia and continued their new Anglican faith together, even meeting soon-to-be prominent Founding Fathers including George Washington who attended the same church as Ross when he was away from Mount Vernon and his home parish. When war broke out in 1775, the patriotic fervor in Philadelphia washed over the Ross household and John guarded ammunition stores as part of his role in the local militia while Elizabeth manufactured items like tents, clothing, and blankets for the American cause. However, two months after the start of the war John Ross was killed guarding the munitions depot from the British and left the 24-year-old Elizabeth Ross to continue the war effort alone.
Nevertheless, Betsy Ross persevered and continued to make materials for the American war effort. In fact, in 1777, Ross was tasked with making flags, ensigns, and banners for the Pennsylvania Navy and their gunboats. The flag used by the Pennsylvania Navy is seen now as a source of inspiration for the American flag and the mythical “Betsy Ross Flag” due to the similarities in colors, organization, and use of patterns. Around this time, Ross married Joseph Ashburn, a private sailor with strong patriot sentiments. However, this marriage was short-lived as Ashburn was captured in 1780 by the British Royal Navy and was convicted of treason due to his role in the American Revolution. After being sentenced to prison in England, Ashburn died in captivity. In 1783, Ross later married John Claypoole, who had been imprisoned with Ashburn and was the one who informed Ross of her husband’s death. After the war, Ross resumed her upholstery and seamstress shop that was later passed down to her children upon her death in 1836.
The mythical status of Betsy Ross in designing the first flag remains unclear. Many oral histories and stories were passed down from the Ross family and lack additional pieces of evidence. However, there are stories that seem to support the idea that Ross at least constructed a flag with the iconic “Betsy Ross” design. For instance, Ross attended the same church as George Washington in Philadelphia, which was the capital of the United States during, and shortly after the Revolutionary War. According to some, Ross mended Washington’s uniform and sewed buttons for Washington which facilitated a discussion about flag designs between the two after church one day. Some even contend that Ross personally revealed the comparisons of construction in the differing designs. Although, many conclude that Ross at least sewed a flag, if not of her own design, for the United States.
While Ross contributed immensely to the American success in the Revolutionary War, we may never truly know just how much she contributed to the founding of the United States. Ross, however, waged her own war against the British, sacrificing two husbands and countless hours using her talent for war materials. Nevertheless, Ross is rightfully hailed as a heroine for her wartime contributions and the possible creation of the first flag of the United States of America.