Marla Miller unfurls the myth of Betsy Ross and the first flag
And — just maybe —Betsy Ross didn't sew the first flag.
In her myth-busting biography Betsy Ross and the Making of America, historian Marla Miller sets the record straight on the history surrounding one of the most famous women of the Colonial era. Along the way, Miller drums up a stirring and fascinating portrait of politics and everyday life in 18th-century America.
Ross, born Elizabeth Griscom in 1752, was an accomplished upholsterer and seamstress in Colonial Philadelphia. A fourth-generation Pennsylvanian, she married John Ross in 1773. He was the first of three husbands she would outlive.
Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole was a hardworking, skilled craftswoman. (She also loved snuff.) Among her creations were hundreds of government and military flags. They were enormously important in the early days in America's history before mass-produced uniforms came into vogue, helping to identify troops and regiments and convey military information.
But there's no plausible proof Ross created or inspired the design for the flag commissioned by the Continental Congress in 1777. Delegates from the 13 colonies resolved that "the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternating red and white, that the Union be thirteen white stars in a blue field representing a new constellation." In fact, other flagmakers of the era laid claim to the flag's creation.
The only "proof" of Ross' involvement is signed affidavits from her progeny made well after her death. This, Miller explains, is how "family memory was converted to national history." Specifically, the story endures that Washington wanted six-pointed stars for the flag and Ross talked him into five-pointed ones.
The lack of documentation is why Miller describes her book as a "story about stories." There is no historical record of Ross' meeting in her parlor with George Washington to hammer out the flag's details.
The Ross family anecdote about Betsy took firm root in 1870 when her grandson William Jackson Canby gave a speech to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Miller contends the legend took hold during the post-Civil War "preoccupation with the flag as a symbol of national unity."
But Miller deftly builds a portrait of Ross and the Colonial world in which she lived. In this first scholarly biography of Ross, Miller uses what we do know to build a compelling portrait of a community and a nation. She also examines the evolution of the Quaker lifestyle in Colonial America— Ross' parents were Quakers — and how the youth of the day rebelled in large numbers against lifestyle restrictions.
How much of Ross' story is fact and how much is fiction doesn't matter in this richly detailed biography. It's all fascinating.USA Today