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Betsy Ross, George Washington, and the True Story Behind Flag Day

One day, George Washington and some members of the Continental Congress came calling to Betsy Ross in Philadelphia. Washington asked her to make a new flag for our nation; it would have red and white stripes, with white five-pointed stars on a field of blue up in the left-hand corner. Betsy cheerfully agreed to the task, and pretty soon we had our brand new flag. Or so the story goes...

Well, that's the legend, and almost all of it is just that, a nice story with very little fact behind it.

In reality, on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first of three "Flag Acts" that would stipulate what a new national flag would look like.

This Flag Act said that we would indeed have a banner with alternating red and white stripes, but it did not say which way the stripes would go ... horizontal or vertical. And yes, there would be a field of blue with stars ... but Congress did not think to mention how many points the stars would have. Four? Five? Six?

Nor did the law say which direction the stars would point. Nor was there any statement about stars arranged in a circle, or in any configuration. We just take it for granted today, but our country was just starting out back then, and many people were concerned with weightier things ... like winning a war.

In 1776, George Washington had two flags in his camp. One had the alternating red and white stripes, but in the upper-left-hand corner there were no stars; instead it was the British Union Jack! That flag was a clear symbol that the Americans still considered themselves to be descendants of Great Britain, while definitely separating themselves from the mother country at the same time. Washington's other flag flew over his headquarters. It was simply a blue banner with white stars. Interestingly, the stars were not five-pointed but rather six-pointed — resembling the Star of David!

What about Betsy Ross? Well, she was a real person, living in Philadelphia during that time period. She and her husband ran an upholstery business, but tragically he was killed in a munitions accident in 1776. She bravely toiled on, keeping the upholstery business going. We do know that she was an expert seamstress, often repairing uniforms for the Continental Army. There is even a record from the Navy Board of Pennsylvania, May 29, 1777, stating that Elizabeth Ross (Betsy) needed to be paid for sewing ships' flags. (Pennsylvania had a Navy? Who knew?)

However, there is no historical evidence whatsoever that Washington or any member of Congress visited her and asked her to make a national flag. Historians today are almost certain that the whole story is fiction. In fact, there was no story about Betsy Ross and the flag until 1870 — almost 100 years after the fact! William Canby, Betsy's grandson, started telling the story in 1870 that his grandmother made the first U.S. flag because of a personal request from George Washington. (When historians look at the diaries and other writings of Washington at this time, there is zero mention of such a story.)