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Betsy Ross Might Not Have Sewn
the First American Flag

One of the most famous stories from colonial America is the story of Betsy Ross and how she patiently sewed the first American flag while rocking back and forth in her living room rocking chair. Schoolkids in every one of the 50 American states learn this story. History books mention it. Betsy Ross is the answer to trivia questions.

And yet, not a shred of evidence exists to prove any of it. In fact, the story of Betsy Ross and the flag didn't first appear until 1870!

In that year, William Canby, Betsy Ross's grandson, told the story at a meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Canby told the group that George Washington and two members of the Continental Congress visited Betsy Ross in June 1776 and asked her to sew a new flag, one that would the troops and other Americans fighting for their freedom in the Revolutionary War.

But Betsy Ross never told her grandson that. William Canby said his aunt told him the story, based on what a very old Betsy Ross supposedly had told her. No written record of such a conversation exists. At best, Canby was relating second-hand information.

Further, no records of any Continental Congress committee to commission a new flag exist, nor do any written records of any payment made to Betsy Ross for making the flag.

Here's what we do know:

  • Betsy Ross was a seamstress.
  • Someone sewed a new flag, which the Continental Army carried into battle and to victory.

How did the story get into widespread circulation? Well, Canby or somebody else who was at that meeting of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania spread the story, and it was published with a lot of other "stuff" as part of the centennial celebration of 1876. The story of Betsy Ross proved so popular that Americans loved to tell it over and over. The story was passed down, from generation to generation, and then written, from history book to history book, until the story is now commonly accepted as what really happened.

And yet ...

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