Did Betsy Ross Really Stitch the First Flag? The Story Behind Old Glory

June 14, 2021Lauren Coontz
Coffee or Die Photo

President Woodrow Wilson established June 14 as national Flag Day in 1916, but it wasn’t made “official” by Congress until 1949. The American flag now flies across the globe and the stars on Mars, the moon, and US military bases and ships on all seven continents.

But what is the real story of the first US flag?

Late in the summer of 1777, the British Army was on the march toward Philadelphia. An advance guard of George Washington’s army, led by Gen. William Maxwell, moved to cut the redcoats off near Newark, Delaware, on Sept. 3. Maxwell’s approximately 1,700 militiamen ambushed the British near Cooch’s Bridge in the only Revolutionary War battle fought on Delaware soil.

The battle eventually drained both sides of ammunition and devolved into swords and bayonet fighting.

The Battle of Cooch’s Bridge was an American ambush on British and Hessian Forces resulting in an American retreat to Brandywine Creek. Image painted by Jack Lewis, courtesy of

As the Americans fought, they did so under a 13-stripe, 13-star flag sewn by a Quaker seamstress who went by “Betsy.” It was the first time US troops had taken the field under a modern Stars and Stripes-style flag.

At least, that’s the official story.

According to the National Register of Historic Places documents on Cooch’s Bridge, “It has been claimed that the Stars and Stripes were first unfurled in battle here.” 

Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross is often described in American history as the creator of the Stars and Stripes-style flag. She is said to have stitched together the first iteration of the Stars and Stripes for Washington’s army, and it was that flag that made its way to Cooch’s Bridge.

Ross had been making flags for years for the Pennsylvania Navy, which caught the eyes of three well-known men who had formed a “flag committee” in the Continental Congress — George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross. George Ross was Betsy Ross’s uncle and knew her talent as a seamstress. George Ross introduced her to Washington and Morris. 

“The Birth of Old Glory” (1917) by artist Percy Moran depicts the symbol of America given to George Washington as he eagerly awaits its display. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The three men came to her with a design that they liked, though their version had six-pointed stars. Betsy made the suggestion to go with five points on the stars instead of six, using origami to show how easy it was to create a five-pointed star and trace it for a cutout. Ultimately, with her minor edits, Betsy finished the flag, a symbol that rings through history with connotations of freedom and liberty for all.

Betsy Ross was indeed a real person, but whether she created the first American flag is debated.

In her twilight years, Ross told her children and grandchildren of her Revolutionary War experience. Most of the legend of Ross’s role in the first flag dates to research and oral histories collected by her grandson William Canby and submitted to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870, nearly a century after the flag was made.

Ross’s Quaker values, her appearance as a “virtuous” figure, and her contributions to the birth of the nation have created a mythology surrounding Betsy Ross and her flag.

Historians cite American judge, lawyer, and Declaration of Independence signer Francis Hopkinson as the designer of multiple US seals and, possibly, the American flag we know today. Image painted by Robert Edge Pine, 1785, courtesy of the Philadelphia History Museum.

Some historians attribute the flag to a Pennsylvania judge named Francis Hopkinson, citing his role in designing the great seal of the United States and another seal for the Treasury. A handful of letters archived from the time, including Hopkinson’s invoices for work on the design, verify that Hopkinson played a role in designing the flag. However, the government denied his monetary claim on the grounds that he had not created the design on his own.

Betsy Ross’s tale of sewing the flag has become a cherished American origin story. However, little actual evidence from the time confirms her involvement. Some historians question whether Washington would have had time to stick his nose in the sewing details of a new flag, and there is no record of a “flag committee” being formed. But Ross was certainly a flag maker for the Navy and known to members in Washington’s circle. 

Regardless of who designed it, the 13 stars and stripes of the “Betsy Ross” flag were officially adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, and the design was used as the colors of the Continental Army for the United States of America from that point forward, with a new star added as each state was granted entrance into the Union.

Read Next: Devil Dogs: The Modern Marine Corps, and Some of Its Best Lore, Began at Belleau Wood

Lauren Coontz
Lauren Coontz

Lauren Coontz is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. Beaches are preferred, but Lauren calls the Rocky Mountains of Utah home. You can usually find her in an art museum, at an archaeology site, or checking out local nightlife like drag shows and cocktail bars (gin is key). A student of history, Lauren is an Army veteran who worked all over the world and loves to travel to see the old stuff the history books only give a sentence to. She likes medium roast coffee and sometimes, like a sinner, adds sweet cream to it.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
Coffee Or Die Photo
From the Team Room to Team Room Design: An Operator’s Creative Journey

BRCC partners with Team Room Design for an exclusive T-shirt release!

Coffee Or Die Photo
Get Your Viking On: The Exclusive 30 Sec Out BRCC Shirt Club Design

Thirty Seconds Out has partnered with BRCC for an exclusive shirt design invoking the God of Winter.

Grizzly Forge BRCC shirt
Limited Edition: Grizzly Forge Blades on an Awesome BRCC Shirt

Lucas O'Hara of Grizzly Forge has teamed up with BRCC for a badass, exclusive Shirt Club T-shirt design featuring his most popular knife and tiomahawk.

BRCC Limited Edition Josh Raulerson Blackbeard Skull Shirt
From Naval Service to Creative Canvas: BRCC Veteran Artist Josh Raulerson

Coffee or Die sits down with one of the graphic designers behind Black Rifle Coffee's signature look and vibe.

Medal of Honor is held up.
Biden Will Award Medal of Honor to Army Helicopter Pilot Who Rescued Soldiers in Vietnam Firefight

Biden will award the Medal of Honor to a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot who risked his life to save a reconnaissance team from almost certain death.

dear jack mandaville
Dear Jack: Which Historic Battle Would You Want To Witness?

Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.

west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
Contact Us
© 2024 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved