The Betsy Ross Flag Controversy Explained

The Betsy Ross flag was an early design of the U.S. flag. It featured 13 stars, instead of the 50 seen in the current version of the flag, along with the white and red stripes. The exact origins of this flag have been a subject of controversy over the years, with some questioning whether Ross created the flag.

Legend has it that the first American flag was made by Betsy Ross, an upholsterer from Philadelphia. The U.S. Department of the Interior explains: "Historians have never been able to verify Ross's legendary role as the creator of the Stars and Stripes."

The department says: "But the likely apocryphal story that in June 1776 General [George] Washington consulted with Ross on the creation of a new flag, and she persuaded him to alter its stars from six-pointed to the easier-to-sew five-pointed took hold in the national patriotic imagination."

Even the website of the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico states that "a secret committee" of three members of the Continental Congress, which included Washington, "entrusted Betsy with making the first flag."

A painting of Betsy Ross sewing.
A Henry Mosler painting titled "The Birth of the Flag" depicting Betsy Ross and her assistants sewing an American flag in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1777. Lambert/Getty Images

Why Did People Believe Betsy Ross Made the Flag?

Speaking to Newsweek, the director of research and publications at the American Historical Association, Dr. Sarah Weicksel, said the belief that Ross made the American flag probably stemmed from the stories she told her children and grandchildren before she died in 1836.

Marla Miller, the author of Betsy Ross and the Making of America, pointed out that in the stories passed down from her family: "Betsy Ross didn't claim to have made the first flag."

Miller told Newsweek the story that got preserved in "a series of 19th-century affidavits by people (including one of Betsy's daughters) who had heard the story told" describing a moment in which Washington and others come to Ross' shop in the spring of 1776 with a design for a flag already in hand, which included stars with six points. Miller also noted there is no known archival evidence that documents these events.

According to Miller, Ross was a newly widowed upholsterer and other working women in Philadelphia at the time were receiving contracts for the suites of flags needed by ships at sea, as the city was preparing for a naval defense.

Miller claimed: "Ross, eager to get some of these contracts herself, was employing her knowledge as a skilled craftswoman to tell Washington and his colleagues that if they were going to need a lot of flags and quickly, this design was better from a production perspective."

According to Weicksel, the story was written down for the first time in 1857 when Ross' daughter Clarissa recounted it more than 20 years after her mother's death. In 1870, the story was first shared publicly in a speech given by William Canby (Ross' grandson) at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The director told Newsweek: "It's not surprising that this story was introduced and took hold in the 1870s, on the eve of the nation's centennial; many Americans, having just emerged from a civil war, were looking to the nation's founding."

Why Do Historians Question If Betsy Ross Made the Flag?

Weicksel told Newsweek that doubts about whether or not Ross was the creator have been raised ever since the story was first told publicly in 1870.

Weicksel says according to Miller, "the marketing and commercialization of Ross's story in the 20th century contributed—by the 1960s and 1970s—to many people dismissing the story as fictional.

"That same marketing is also what popularized the story and helped it to enter Americans' mythology about the nation's past," Weicksel told Newsweek.

Miller explained when the family story was first shared on the eve of the nation's centennial and following the end of the Civil War, "the flag representing union had taken on a new symbolic force," while "the quest for women's suffrage" was also under way at the time.

The author told Newsweek: "The story of Betsy Ross was appealing because centennial events could include this example of women's contribution to the launching of the nation while also suggesting that those contributions were domestic (rather than political or military).

"Even though the real Betsy Ross worked in a shop setting, late 19th-century artwork imaging the moment she presented the flag to Washington always placed her in the parlor, an important artifact in understanding why and how she came to be remembered."

Miller said many of these elements were present 20 years later when "interest surged around the preservation of the 'Betsy Ross House' on Arch Street, helping anchor the story in popular historical imagination."

The history of the Betsy Ross flag can be found at the "Betsy Ross and the American Flag" website, which is maintained by the Independence Hall Association of Philadelphia.

The website says questions were raised because Ross' creation of the flag is "not an established historical fact," similar to other events such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia's Independence Hall or Washington's winter at Valley Forge.

The aforementioned events "quite definitely took place," the website says, and were established as public knowledge from the start, as most learn about such events at school.

The website explains: "Upon learning later that Betsy Ross's flag creation has not been established with the same level of certainty as those other events, some conclude that it was therefore a myth or a hoax, like George Washington and the cherry tree. That's a genuine American myth. Betsy is not."

A Betsy Ross flag replica in Philadelphia.
A replica "Betsy Ross Flag" posted on the side of the Betsy Ross House landmark in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in August 2016. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Is There Evidence That Betsy Ross Made the Flag?

The "Betsy Ross and the American Flag" website claims the evidence for whether Ross created the flag "is compelling, though not conclusive."

The website says the testimony of Ross' relatives is "entirely plausible." However, there are no archival documents from the Continental Congress or the personal correspondence of Washington and other related parties that either confirm or contradict the claims made by the relatives, according to the website.

Weicksel told Newsweek: "We do not have archival evidence to support the claim that Betsy Ross made the flag. But in the end, I think the most important story here isn't about who exactly sewed the flag, but rather, within what context—and that is a fascinating history about female artisans, their skilled craftsmanship, and the material world of the Revolution."

Miller told Newsweek: "Ross took tremendous pride in having known the 'father of our country' (she had also made a suite of bed curtains for him earlier, in the work of her shop); in her telling, it was not a claim about having made the 'first flag,' but rather having known Washington and having made one small contribution to the final appearance of the flag. That all rings true to me.

"Not that she was single-handedly responsible for anything—the creation and confirmation of the flag as we know it today was a slow, gradual process that involved many people—but that she was in the conversation and was proud of that," Miller explained.

The "Betsy Ross and the American Flag" website says while the evidence available is insufficient to establish "with certainty" that Ross made the flag, "it's entirely plausible and consistent with the evidence we do have."

The website also alleges some say "the reluctance to accept Betsy's achievements" could be down to sexism. But perhaps it is just "a misunderstanding of the process of history," it explains.

Links to the testimony of Ross' grandson Canby and the affidavits of relatives including Rachel Fletcher (her daughter), Sophia Hildebrant (her granddaughter) and Margaret Boggs (her niece) can be found at the "Betsy Ross and the American Flag" website.

Newsweek has contacted the American Flag Foundation for comment.

Update 7/13/21, 7:36 a.m. ET: This article was updated with comment from Marla Miller.