Monday, July 4, 2011

Betsy Ross

Philadelphia, PA –  Visited April 2011

In honor of Independence Day this is a blog on one of the great legends of the beginning of our country. In this case however the true story is actually more interesting than the legend.

First, here’s the legend. In June 1776 a committee of George Washington and two others from the Continental Congress was sent to the home of a well known seamstress named Betsy Ross. Washington asked Betsy Ross to create a flag with six point stars. But Betsy showed him that a five point star could be cut much easier, therefore allowing flags to be sown much quicker. With the committee’s approval, Betsy Ross created the flag that was eventually adopted by the new United States as the national flag. Though the first flag story has long been part of our national lore, historians have been unable to substantiate the claims of Betsy Ross’s primary role in the creation of Old Glory. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t a true patriot.

Betsy Ross was born Elizabeth Griscom to a Quaker family in New Jersey who eventually settled in a home at 4th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia. She was one of seventeen children. Her father was one of the carpenters who helped build the bell tower at Independence Hall. Betsy apprenticed as a seamstress, where she met and fell in love with John Ross - the son of an Anglican minister of Christ Church in Philadelphia.  John's father George Ross (Betsy's father-in-law) was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Her marriage to Ross led to her being expelled from the Society of Friends and the loss of relationship with her Quaker family. Just two years after their marriage the Revolutionary War broke out and John Ross joined the local militia. Tragically, John was killed in an explosion as he was guarding a munitions supply in the city. Betsy, now a widow at 24 with no family, continued to run the upholstery business she had started with her husband and aided in the war effort by sewing uniforms and other materials for the Continental Army.

"Birth of Our Nation's Flag" painted by Charles Weisgerber, who lived in
the Ross house around 1900 and became one of the principal
figures in its preservation and ultimate restoration

In 1777 Betsy married a seaman, Joseph Ashburn, who was likewise a patriot. They had a baby and Betsy was pregnant with her second child when Ashburn’s ship was captured by the British on a supply run for the Continental cause. He was taken to prison in England where he died of illness in jail, never seeing his wife again, or the child who was born while he was away. In addition to having two husbands sacrifice their lives for the cause, Betsy also had to endure the forced occupation of her home when the British captured Philadelphia during the war.

Betsy Ross house circa 1900...

In 1782 a man named John Claypoole, who became friends with Joseph Ashburn in the English jail, came to Philadelphia to pay his respects to Betsy. They fell in love and, at 30 years old, the twice widowed Betsy became Betsy Claypoole. She and her third husband enjoyed a 34 year marriage. Marriage to John Claypoole allowed Betsy to return to her Quaker heritage but, having been ardent supporters of the Revolution, they made their connection with a non-pacifist branch of the Society.

... and now

Betsy spent her later years caring for her husband, whose war wounds gradually incapacitated him and led to his death in 1817. He thus became the third husband of Elizabeth Griscom to die as a result of serving his country in the Revolutionary War. She continued to sew and care for family until going blind toward the end of her life. Betsy Ross died in 1836 at the age of 84 years old.

Betsy Ross is buried next to her house in the Old City section of Philadelphia; just a few blocks from Independence Hall. She was actually buried two other places before she came to her final resting place there.

The Betsy Ross House is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Philadelphia.  I visited there as we toured Old City Philadelphia with family from out of town in the Spring of 2011.

A father who built Independence Hall. Daugther in law of a Founding Father of our country.  A working class woman whose sacrifice included the loss of three husbands in the defense of freedom. An example of industry and patriotism in the forming of a new nation. Even if she never met George Washington and showed him the five point star, Betsy Griscom-Ross-Ashburn-Claypoole deserves honor as an America hero.  

If you want to be inspired with appreciation of what our flag stands for watch
this famous video of LA Dodger  Rick Monday stopping a flag burning


  1. And as Paul Harvey would say .. Now we know the rest of the story. There are two points of contention with Betsy Ross's story.

    1. It was initiated by her grandson when the country was in need of heroes to establish our country around the centenial. So many have questioned whether Betsy made the flag.
    2. Betsy Ross did not live at 4th and Arch.

    In my experience people love conspiracies, and they tend to throw out any elements of truth associated with myth.

    We can only speculate. My best guess is that Betsy was viewed by our founding fathers as a women who had sacrificed much for the cause. She was an important member of a team of upholsters assigned the task. I think there were also men involved in the project.

    She probably did not live in the Betsy Ross house, but it may have been the upholstery shop that she inherited from her husband. Her husband in the biblical sense may have been a tentmaker as well an assistant rector of Christ Church. The proximity looks right.,+Philadelphia,+PA&daddr=239+Arch+Street,+Philadelphia,+PA+19106&hl=en&sll=39.95228,-75.144616&sspn=0.00778,0.021136&geocode=FbefYQIdbVSF-yHH5BvS4IXidQ%3BFZifYQIdWGKF-yG3I2TpupMv1ikPiD5yhsjGiTHR93M2AGPMKQ&mra=ls&z=17

  2. A few more interesting facts are:

    That you currently work alongside one of her descendants. My mother is a Griscom.

    The first Griscom to step foot in America during the 1690's... Andrew Griscom.

    I believe my mother gave the Betsy Ross house our Family tree that started with Andrew and ended with my Great Grand father a few years back. I'll check on that one.

    I also have a book that shows the family lines, I'll bring that in to show you.