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Meet the American who stitched the Stars & Stripes, Betsy Ross, reputed wartime seductress

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Meet the American who stitched the Stars & Stripes, Betsy Ross, reputed wartime seductress

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Flagmaker Betsy Ross is embraced as one of the most popular figures of the American Revolution.

The young Philadelphia seamstress stitched the original Old Glory in the summer of 1776 at the request of Gen. George Washington himself, at least according to a beloved but unproven national narrative.

“Today, while many Americans have come to take the legend and romance of it with a grain of salt, Betsy Ross’ popularity is nevertheless undiminished,” Marla R. Miller wrote in her 2010 biography, “Betsy Ross and the Making of America.”

The real story of Betsy Ross is even greater than the highly plausible account of America’s first flagmaker.

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The Pennsylvania patriot stands at the center of one of the most spectacular accounts of wartime romance and intrigue in American history. 

Ross first broke with her Quaker family to elope with a man serving in the local militia. Both he and her second husband were killed during the American Revolution. 

Detail of “Betsy Ross and the First Stars & Stripes” by John Ward Dunsmore.  (Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Ross bravely refused to flee the city during its occupation by the British. She worked throughout the war by making supplies for the colonial army, according to numerous accounts. 

Scholars suggest that the nation’s beloved motherly first flagmaker is also the mysterious bombshell who seduced a ruthless Hessian officer the Christmas night that Washington crossed the Delaware River in a desperate gambit to save the failing American Revolution.

Some of the Americans marched barefoot. Two of them froze to death. 

Washinton’s under-equipped colonial troops routed the Hessian garrison in Trenton, New Jersey, even as some of the Americans marched barefoot. Two of them froze to death. 

An entire regiment of Hessian troops, their commander perhaps in the embrace of the American femme fatale, never made the battle.

Neither Betsy Ross story — America’s first flagmaker or Washington’s secret-ally seductress — is proven in the eyes of historians. 

Betsy Ross flag mural

A Betsy Ross flag mural on the grounds of an Elementary School at Fort Myers Beach, Florida. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

But ample evidence indicates that Betsy Ross was the right woman at the right place at the right time in American history, not once but twice.

Twice-widowed war bride

Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom was born in Gloucester City, New Jersey to a Quaker family on Jan. 1, 1752. 

The Griscoms moved across the Delaware River to Philadelphia when young Elizabeth was still a child.

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The Pennsylvania Quaker proved her rebel spirit as a young woman. She eloped with John Ross, a man outside the Society of Friends, against the wishes of her family.

Ross was a fellow apprentice to John Webster, a notable Philadelphia upholsterer. The young lovers escaped to Hugg’s Tavern across the river in Gloucester City to marry in 1773. 

Actress portrays Betsy Ross

Living history reenactment of Betsy Ross making the first American flag, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The husband, a member of the Philadelphia militia, was killed in a gunpowder explosion in Jan. 1776. 

Betsy Ross married again in June 1777. Sailor Joseph Ashburn was at sea when his vessel and its crew were captured by the British. 

Ashburn died as a prisoner of war in Britain in 1782.   

The widow survived by building what appears to be a thriving business as a seamstress of great notoriety. 

“They had been appointed to prepare a flag, and asked her if she thought she could make one.”

Three men entered her shop in May or June 1776, according to the Ross family’s later flag origin story. 

“She 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,” her grandson, William Canby, reported to the Historical Society of Philadelphia in 1870. 

Pennsylvania miltia

“The Pennsylvania Regiment, 1760, Corporal.” One of a collection of 12 watercolors of American Colonial militia uniforms, 1756-1761. Figure in blue, orange and white with rifle facing right. Artist Herbert Knotel, 1949.  (Pierce Archive LLC/Buyenlarge via Getty Images)

“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.”

Ross’ completed version had 13 alternating red and white stripes – one for each American colony – and 13 white stars on a field of blue. 

It was the first flag of the United States of America. 

The flag of the United States is known today as Old Glory. The Stars & Stripes. 

Her version, the 13 stars in a circle, is still known as the Betsy Ross Flag.

Betsy Ross flag

Elks magazine illustration (by Paul Stahr) features Betsy Ross as a young woman as she sews the first American flag, watched over by George Washington, 1927. The image later appeared on the cover of the magazine’s July 1927 issue.  (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The design was codified by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777 – the date now celebrated each year as Flag Day. 

Gen. Washington’s secret weapon

The “Spirit of ’76” represents American triumph today. But for those Americans who suffered through 1776, it was the darkest year in the nation’s history.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote so eloquently on Dec. 23, 1776 in “The Crisis,” his influential call to steel the patriot spirit.

Attack on Trenton

Washington crossing the Delaware, near Trenton, New Jersey, America Christmas 1776. George Washington, 1732-1799. First president of the United States. From English and Scottish History, published 1882.  (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Washington’s army in 1776 was routed in Brooklyn and Manhattan, then chased clear across New Jersey with one defeat after another. 

The general was camped in Pennsylvania on the west bank of the Delaware River in December. His defeated army suffered low morale and shortages, while conscription for many troops expired at the end of the year.

“Washington’s brave soldiers would win a series of victories at Trenton and Princeton that were glorious indeed.” 

The American Revolution needed a miracle. 

Washington found it with his daring raid across the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776. The rout of the Hessians in Trenton changed the course of American history. 

“From December 25, 1776, to January 3, 1777 — a period of just 10 days — Washington’s brave soldiers would win a series of victories at Trenton and Princeton that were glorious indeed,” reports the American Battlefield Trust. 

Betsy Ross flag

A worker sews together a new Betsy Ross flag made out of fireproof material at Colonial Flag on July 5, 2019, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)

“These ten crucial days proved instrumental to rekindling patriot morale and keeping the cause for American independence alive in the wake of early defeats.”

The outcome might have been different had Hessian Colonel Count Carl von Donop not been too busy to lead his regiment from nearby Mount Holly to the battle in Trenton.

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The officer instead spent three nights at Christmastime in his headquarters entertaining an “exceedingly beautiful young widow,” according to the testimony of Hessian Captain Johann Ewald. 

There is suspicion, and ample evidence, that Besty Ross was the temptress who kindled the fires of von Donop while helping re-kindle the cause of American independence. 

The theory is floated by no less an authority than David Hackett Fischer in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 history, “Washington’s Crossing.” 

Hessian troops in American Revolution

Illustrated bookplate of Hessian soldier regiments in their uniforms. Printed in the book, “Armée Hessoise” by JH Carl & JC Muller in 1805. Artist J.H. Carl, 1784. (Pierce Archive LLC/Buyenlarge via Getty Images)

“In December 1776, there was a young and very beautiful young widow, a ‘Free Quaker,’ strongly sympathetic to the American cause who lived in Philadelphia,” writes Fischer.

She “had family connections in Gloucester County, New Jersey, was married there, and often went back and forth. She was acquainted with … George Washington.”

He credits historian Joseph Tustin for naming Betsy Ross the possible seductress. 

Stars & Stripes forever

Elizabeth “Betsy” (Griscom) Ross died on Jan. 30, 1836. She was 84 years old. 

She lived a remarkable life after the “times that try men’s souls” of 1776. 

Betsy Ross illustration with flag

Betsy Ross is shown sewing the first American flag. Painting. (Getty Images)

Ross learned of her second husband’s death from John Claypoole, who served time with him in the British prison where he died. 

“Claypoole and Ross became friends and got married a year later,” reports the National Women’s History Museum. “They enjoyed a 34-year marriage and had five children.”

“Betsy Ross comes to us today in story, song and pageantry as the maker of the first United States flag,”

Ross worked until age 76, according to the museum, and was blind by age 81.

“She continued to tell the story of how she made the first American flag to her children and grandchildren,” the museum reports. 

Ross did spend decades making flags. The first-flag origin story, however, has an obvious flaw in it. It emerged more than 30 years after she died. Its only source is her own family. 

Still, the image of the “beautiful young widow” stitching the first Stars & Stripes for the Father of His Country in the desperate year of 1776 immediately thrilled the American public.

Betsy Ross flag

Projections of the Betsy Ross Flag outside Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“It was enough for a public eager to find a national matriarch to join the ranks of so many Founding Fathers,” William C. Kashatus of the Chester County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society wrote for the U.S. Department of State in 2005. 

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“By 1892, Betsy Ross was considered important enough for residents of Philadelphia to protest the deterioration of the townhouse in which she purportedly lived in 1776.”

Her home remains one of the top three historical attractions in Philadelphia, alongside other icons of the American Revolution: Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. 

Neither role – maternal seamstress or conniving vixen — has been proven correct. But both are plausible, and neither has been proven wrong.

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“Betsy Ross comes to us today in story, song and pageantry as the maker of the first United States flag,” Miller wrote in her 2010 Ross biography. 

Betsy Ross "Meet the American Who" split

Betsy Ross is beloved by Americans as the person who stitched the first Stars & Stripes flag. The story is unproven, scholars note, but highly plausible. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images; Buyenlarge/Getty Images; VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

“Among the few female figures to emerge as compelling characters in our national origin stories, Ross was embraced by teachers and schoolchildren, civic leaders, artists, and authors of children’s literature.” 

She might also have been embraced by the enemy on the night that saved the American Revolution. 

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“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country,” Paine wrote in “The Crisis” two days before the Battle of Trenton.

The patriot that “stands by it now,” he added, “deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” 

To read more stories in this unique “Meet the American Who…” series from Fox News Digital, click here.

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