05 June 2009

The First Stars and Stripes

Flag Day is 14 June. This day commemorates the resolution of the adoption of the United States flag in 1777 by the Second Continental Congress. But how did we get our flag? Who made it? When did it first fly? These questions are shrouded in mystery, myth, and legend.

The first known use of thirteen stripes on an American flag is found upon the flag of the Philadelphia troop of Light Horse in 1775. Abraham Markoe, a Danish man, and the first captain of the Light Horse, is known to be the designer of the flag. (1)


An earlier striped flag was used by the Sons of Liberty, a non-military group. In 1767, the group used a flag with nine vertical stripes (five red and four white). It is probable that the nine stripes represented the nine Colonies that were in attendance at the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 in New York. By 1776, this flag had 13 stripes, alternating red and white, and turned to the horizontal.


The white stars and blue field were found on George Washington’s personal flag, which was with him where ever he went. The flag was blue, with 13 six-pointed stars. Some suggest that both the stars and stripes come from the coat of arms of the Washington family. (2) This seems to be a fanciful myth, however, as the colors do not match, and many other flags having nothing to do with George Washington contained stars or stripes. A fine example of this is the British East India Company flag, which would have been familiar to Americans at the time. As a matter of fact, a banner looking exactly the same as the British East India Company flag was chosen as the first U.S. flag and is known as the Continental Colors or the Grand Union flag. (This flag was raised by General Washington over his army in Cambridge, MA in January, 1776.)

As the new United States and Great Britain continued the war, the Union Jack of the Continental Colors needed to be replaced on the flag of the new nation.

To replace the Continental Colors, on 14 June 1777, the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress adopted the resolution which read: "Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation."

There exists no proof of who designed the field and stars of our flag. The resolution of Congress merely mentioned that the union had 13 white stars on a blue field; the position and shapes of these stars was left to the imagination. In the most propagated myth of the flag, Betsy Ross was the maker of the first flag. The story even goes as far as to say she created the design of the flag, and her name is still affixed to that flag design today.

William Canby, a grandson of Betsy Ross, read a paper to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in March 1780 which claimed that Betsy Ross designed the flag at her house and upholstery shop at present-day 239 Arch Street in Philadelphia, PA. As Mr. Canby put it, Betsy was “sitting sewing in her shop one day with her girls around her, [when] several gentlemen entered. She recognized one of these as the uncle of her deceased husband, Col. George Ross, a delegate from Pennsylvania to Congress. She also knew the handsome form and features of the dignified, yet graceful and polite Commander in Chief, who, while he was yet Colonel Washington had visited her shop both professionally and socially many times[….]They announced themselves as a committee of congress, and stated that they had been appointed to prepare a flag, and asked her if she thought she could make one, to which she replied, with her usual modesty and self reliance, that ‘she did not know but she could try; she had never made one but if the pattern were shown to her she had not doubt of her ability to do it.’ The committee were shown into her back parlor, the room back of the shop, and Col. Ross produced a drawing, roughly made, of the proposed flag. It was defective to the clever eye of Mrs. Ross and unsymetrical, and she offered suggestions which[…]were of sufficient importance to involve an alteration and re-drawing of the design, which was then and there done by General George Washington, in pencil, in her back parlor. One of the alterations had reference to the shape of the stars. In the drawing they were made with six points. Mrs. Ross at once said that this was wrong; the stars should be five pointed; they were aware of that, but thought there would be some difficulty in making a five pointed star. ‘Nothing easier’ was her prompt reply and folding a piece of paper in the proper manner, with one clip of her ready scissors she quickly displayed to their astonished vision the five pointed star; which accordingly took its place in the national standard. General Washington was the active one in making the design, the others having little or nothing to do with it.” (3) Rachel Fletcher, daughter of Betsy Ross, Sophia B. Hildebrant, granddaughter of Betsy Ross and Margaret Donaldson Boggs, niece of Betsy Ross all supplied affidavits stating similar stories that Elizabeth Claypoole (Betsy Ross) had told them before her death. There is little more evidence to support this claim.

Strong evidence does exist, however, that Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey (and author of "The Battle of the Kegs"), was responsible for the design the first Stars and Stripes. At the time that the flag resolution was adopted, Hopkinson was the Chairman of the Continental Navy Board's Middle Department. He also helped design the Great Seal of the United States for the government, along with designs for other seals and symbols. Hopkinson later submitted a letter to the Continental Admiralty Board asking “whether a Quarter Cask of the public Wine will not be a proper & reasonable Reward for these Labours of Fancy and a suitable Encouragement to future Exertions of a like Nature.” His request was turned down since the Congress regarded him as a public servant. (4) Furthermore, after resigning from the Naval Board in August 1778, Hopkinson wrote a letter to the Board of Admiralty regarding his design for that board’s seal as well as the design of “The flag of the United States of America” and other seals and currency designs. The inclusion of the flag, listed as “the great naval flag of the United States” on his account for payment (he asked for $2,700 compensation), (5) was disputed by no one at the time, as far as the historical record can tell. The record, therefore, points to Francis Hopkinson as the designer, and leaves Betsy Ross as the American myth.

The first use of this new flag in battle occurred about a month and a half after the resolution was passed. On 2 August 1777 the British approached the American-held Fort Stanwix in New York. Colonel Marinus Willett, present at the fort, wrote, “The fort had never been supplied with a flag. The necessity of having one, upon the arrival of the enemy, taxed the invention of the garrison, and a decent one was soon contrived. The white stripes were cut out of ammunition shirts furnished by the soldiers; the blue out of the camlet cloak taken from the enemy at Peekskill; while the red stripes were made of different pieces of stuff procured from one another and the garrison.” (6)


The new flag definitely flew at the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania on 11 September 1777, and at all battles thereafter. And though the design has changed slightly over the years, the stars and stripes remain on the flag, which still flies in battle to this day.



(1) History of the Flag of the United States of America. George Henry Preble. James R. Osgood & Co., Boston, MA, 1882, p. 251, 256.

(2) History of the Flag of the United States of America, p. 260.

(3) Paper read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (March 1870), entitled The History of the Flag of the United States, by William J. Canby.

(4) Our Flag. Joint Committee on Printing, United States Congress. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 1.

(5) National Geographic Magazine vol. 32. Judd & Detweiler Inc., Washington, D.C., 1917, p. 298-299.

(6) History of the Flag of the United States of America, p. 276.

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