Now that Betsy Ross is back in the news again, it might not be a bad idea to examine her credentials as a vexillographer. Perhaps not surprisingly, they’re a tad on the sparse side:
The story first started to circulate in popular consciousness around the 1876 centennial. Allegedly passed down through the Ross family, Betsy Ross was said to have made the flag at the personal request of George Ross [Betsy’s brother-in-law] and America’s first president George Washington. An example for patriotic young girls around the time of the centennial, Betsy was given the design by Washington, Ross and another man named Robert Morris. (Morris was an early United States Senator and held a pre-Constitutional office roughly analogous to Secretary of the Treasury.)
“Superintendent of Finance,” in fact. Once the Constitution was in place, Morris was offered the job of Secretary of the Treasury; he begged off, but recommended a candidate, a fellow named Alexander Hamilton.
Other than the say-so of her distant relatives, there is no evidence supporting Ross’ design and creation of the first American flag. However, much circumstantial evidence against her role includes no records of a flag design committee, no evidence that George Washington even knew who Betsy Ross was, and no mention in letters or diaries that have surfaced from the period. Betsy Ross was paid a significant sum by the Pennsylvania State Navy Board to make flags, but there’s no details about what those flags were.
Of course, the fact that it was done is far more important than the question of who did it.