Catherine Hardee: Celebrating Flag Day — and my great-great-great-great-great grandmother
The month of June is sandwiched between the two most celebrated patriotic holidays in the United States. Memorial Day — at the end of May — and the Fourth of July both bring out all the best in terms of red, white and blue decor, cookouts and fireworks.
But June is not without its own patriotic holiday. Today, June 14, is Flag Day, a holiday first established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. The date was chosen because on June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Act of 1777, which decreed the flag of the United States would have 13 red and white stripes and 13 white stars on a blue background.
Though Flag Day does not have the same status as a federal holiday as other patriotic holidays, the event and symbol it celebrates are worth taking the time to recognize. The American flag, in all its variations over our country’s nearly 243-year history, has been a symbol of the values that make this nation great.
One of the largest celebrations of Flag Day each year takes place in Philadelphia at the historic home of seamstress Betsy Ross, who legend says sewed the first version of the Stars and Stripes. Modern historians have serious doubts about the veracity of that story, but growing up, I never once doubted the truth of it.
Maybe that was because any time I visited my aunt’s house, I got to sit in chairs that had once graced Betsy Ross’ kitchen. My grandmother, Rebecca Kimble Tilghman, was the great-great-great granddaughter of Ross.
The story of Ross sewing the first flag didn’t exist outside family tradition until 1870, when her grandson (my great-great-great-great uncle) William J. Canby presented a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania detailing the claims.
According to Canby’s story, George Washington visited Betsy Ross’ Philadelphia upholstery shop with a pencil sketch of a flag design in June of 1776, and asked if she could make a flag from it. She quickly suggested some changes, and then agreed to take the job, thus earning her place in history.
Canby admitted then there was no supporting documentary evidence for the claim. All he had to go on were the stories told by his grandmother later in life. Modern historians have almost universally dismissed the story of the first flag as the stuff of myth and legend.
But the undisputed true story of Betsy Ross is amazing enough without the addition of George Washington and the Stars and Stripes. At a time when many women had little to do beyond marriage and children, Ross founded and ran a successful upholstery business in Philadelphia for decades, outliving three husbands to die at the age of 84 in 1836.
Born Elizabeth Griscom in 1752, Betsy was apprenticed to an upholsterer at age 17, where she met and married fellow apprentice John Ross, defying her Quaker family in the process since John was an Anglican. The young couple opened an upholstery business that was highly successful, but John’s death in 1776 left Betsy to run the shop alone as a young widow. It was at this point she is believed to have created the first flag.
Betsy married again in 1777 to mariner Joseph Ashburne, but he was captured by the British in 1780 and died of illness in a British prison a few weeks before the end of the Revolutionary War. In a twist out of a romance novel, John Claypoole, a fellow prisoner who brought her news of Ashburne’s death would later become her third husband.
Her marriage to Claypoole lasted for 30 years, but Claypoole’s disabilities as a result of his war service meant Betsy was the one who truly provided for their family, which grew to include five daughters who lived past infancy.
Today, I will celebrate the Stars and Stripes, and all that it stands for. I will also take the time to remember the woman who may or may not have been the first to create that symbol, but who defied expectations as a patriot and entrepreneur and is herself a potent symbol of all that makes America great.