THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Betsy Ross biography reveals a life behind the flags

By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / May 21, 2010

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In the early years of the new Republic, new flags were needed, and lots of them. National flags, of course, but also flags for Army regiments and for ships of the fledgling Navy, as well as dozens to be handed out as a gifts to Indian tribes encountered as the new nation pushed westward.

Among the prominent flag makers in Philadelphia was the tiny shop headed by Betsy Ross that, in 1810, snagged the contract for six mammoth 18-by-24-foot flags (each measuring 432 square feet) for the garrison at New Orleans.

Ross, doing business under her new married name, Elizabeth Claypoole, is better known today by the name she used after her short first marriage to John Ross, and for the oft-told, if spurious, tale of the creation of the iconic Stars and Stripes flag of 1776, purportedly commissioned by George Washington and the Continental Congress.

In “Betsy Ross and the Making of America,’’ Marla R. Miller, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, takes a close look at the legendary yarn and finds little hard, historical evidence to support it. But she also broadens her focus to offer a rich biography of the woman behind the myth and ably demonstrates why Ross merits study in her own right.

Early in the book, Miller recounts the well-known story of Washington’s visit to Ross’s upholstery shop, sometime in the spring of 1776, in quest of a flag for his Continental Army. According to legend, Washington was known to favor six-pointed stars, but Ross a “headstrong’’ and “willful’’ young woman, as Miller describes her, employed a “parlor trick’’ to demonstrate that making a five-pointed star was easier, and Washington was convinced.

The “infelicities’’ in this traditional account of the birth of the Stars and Stripes “appear quickly,’’ writes Miller.

There is no documentary evidence for Ross’s making of the original flag, although there is a record of her being paid a year later for “making ship’s colours’’ for the Pennsylvania Navy.

As support for Washington’s presence, he is accompanied, in the traditional story, by George Ross, a member of the Continental Congress who was an uncle of Ross’s recently-deceased husband.

Of more concern for the historical record is that the events surrounding Washington’s visit survived only in family memories until it was published by Ross’s grandson, William J. Canby, in 1870, some 34 years after her death.

As Miller concludes, after reviewing the scant, often-murky evidence, “the did-she-or-didn’t-she question is not especially useful.’’

She writes that while “popular historical imagination suggests that Betsy Ross’s life reached its crescendo when she stitched her first flag . . . for the young craftswoman [that] act was only the beginning of a new and long-running enterprise for her shop.’’

In 1811, the year after crafting the six New Orleans flags, Ross received an order for 46 garrison flags that she was to deliver “with all dispatch.’’ And in the same year came an order for 27 flags for the Indian Department, similar to one reproduced in Miller’s book.

By now, Ross was joined in her shop by her niece Margaret and her daughters, her sister Rachel, and “whoever else could be set to work.’’ Ross’s daughter Clarissa had joined the shop in 1812 after the death of her husband, and from 1817, the firm was known as Claypoole and Wilson. Ross herself continued to work there until 1827 when, at 75, she retired. She died in 1836.

This later work, rather than the legend, should stand as the real Betsy Ross story, Miller argues.

The fortunes of Betsy Ross and her daughter Clarissa, she writes, were “closely tied to the emerging nation’s.’’ With their flags, “[flying] from the mouth of the Mississippi to the Delaware Valley, and probably to the Great Lakes and into the western interior as well . . . announced and advanced the aims of the young Republic.’’

Michael Kenney, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at mkenney777@gmail.com.

BETSY ROSS AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA

By Marla R. Miller

Henry Holt, 467 pp., illustrated, $30