Who Was the Real Betsy Ross? Is the American Flag Legend True?
Betsy Ross Presenting the Old Glory, painted by Walter Haskell Hinton in 1950 - nearly two centuries after the alleged scene took place. This scene is set at some point in May or June 1776, just prior to the nation's Declaration of Independence on July 4.
The three gentlemen pictured, from left to right, are General George Washington, commander of the American Continental Army, and two members of the Continental Congress - both of whom would sign the Declaration.
The figure in the center is Colonel George Ross, the uncle of Betsy's first husband, John Ross, who had been killed in an accidental explosion, while on militia duty, less than six months earlier, in January 1776. The other, on the right, is Robert Morris, known as the "Financier" of the American Revolution, due to his invaluable services in keeping the fledgling nation solvent.
But did anything in this scene actually take place? Read more... and draw your own conclusions...
Front view of the Betsy Ross House
Exterior and back view of the Betsy Ross House
13 star American flag, outside Betsy Ross House; this picture captures the still-shadowy details of the legend of its creation
Probably not, but the real Betsy Ross was a genuine patriot, losing two husbands as a result of the American cause during the Revolutionary War. Read more...
Who Was the Historical Betsy Ross?
Elizabeth Griscom was the eighth of 17 children, borh to a Quaker family on New Year's Day, 1752. Her father, Samuel, was a carpenter in New Jersey; he moved his wife Rebecca, and their large family across the Delaware River into Philadelphia when Betsy was three years old. They moved into a house at 4th and Arch Streets.
After attending Quaker school, Betsy became an apprentice upholsterer. While learning the trade, she fell in love with an Anglican named John Ross, another apprentice. At the time, it was considered unacceptable for a Quaker to marry outside the faith, and her family did not approve of their relationship.
The couple decided to marry, without the approval of her family or that of the Quaker community, and Betsy returned to New Jersey to get married. Betsy Griscom married John Ross on November 4, 1773, at Hugg's Tavern in Gloucester, New Jersey, when she was 21 years of age. It was the first of her three marriages. They joined the Anglican Christ Church - another Old City attraction worth seeing.
The couple returned to Philadelphia and opened an upholstery shop, renting the House that today bears her name on Mulberry Street (one of the original tree names from William Penn, which is now known as Arch Street).
Unfortunately, their marriage lasted only two years. John Ross, while serving his militia duty guarding an American supply depot, was killed by an accidental explosion of gunpowder, rendering Betsy a widow at 24, with no children.
Betsy continued to run the upholstery business, and supplemented her income by sewing uniforms and tents, and making cartridges and ammunition, for George Washington's Continental Army.
Betsy's life continued to intersect with the struggle between Britain and the American colonies. Two years into the war, on June 15, 1777, at the age of 25, Betsy remarried, wedding Joseph Ashburn, a mariner.
With her new husband away at sea most of the time, Betsy continued to run the upholstery business; the couple had two daughters, Zilla and Eliza. Zilla died at the age of nine months, a victim of the high infant mortality of the era.
In 1780, adding to the family's misfortune, Joseph Ashburn's ship was captured by a British Royal Navy frigate on the Atlantic Ocean. The American crew had the misfortune to be charged with treason, and wound up in a British prison, Old Mill, in Plymouth, England.
British prisons were notoriously unsanitary, and Joseph died there, of an unknown cause, prior to the prisoners' release in 1782. He had never met his second daughter.
Later that year, one of Ashburn's fellow prisoners, John Claypoole, brought Betsy Ross the news of the death of her second husband. She was now widowed for the second time, at age 30. Claypoole was a previous acquaintance of Betsy's, and had become a close friend of Joseph's, undoubtedly due to their experiences at sea, during the Revolutionary War.
Betsy and Claypoole renewed their old friendship, and married on May 8, 1783. She was now 31 years old, and had been married three times.
The Quaker community - which largely adhered to the pacifist beliefs of the sect - had been split over the Revolutionary War. Some remained pacifist. Others, such as the distinguished General Nathanael Greene, the second-best American general after Washington himself, became "Fighting Quakers"- and directly engaged in the battle against British rule.
A year after their marriage, Betsy Ross and John Claypoole joined this group in Philadelphia, known formally as the Society of Free Quakers.
Fortunately for the couple, their marriage lasted 34 years, an extremely long duration for that time period, given the fragility of life and the susceptibility to disease. Betsy Ross and John Claypoole would have five daughters together, but unfortunately, only one survived till adulthood. (This meant that Betsy had seven daughters in all, and only one survived childhood.)
In 1793, ten years after the Treaty of Paris formally ended the Revolutionary War, and Britain acknowledged the independence of its former American colonies, Philadelphia was struck by one of the worst disasters in its long history, before or since - a yellow fever epidemic. Betsy, now 41, saw her family hit especially hard. Both of her parents and one of her sisters died from the yellow fever.
John Claypoole died in 1817, an especially long life for the time, but Betsy was now widowed for the third time. She eventually retired at the age of 76, moving to Abington (a inner-ring Montgomery County suburb now, although quite a distance from the city of Philadelphia, in the early 19th century). She died at age 84, on January 30, 1836.
The gravestone of Betsy Ross and her third husband, John Claypoole - Betsy Ross House
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