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.
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 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.
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.