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This Day in History: Betsy Ross’s sacrifices for the American cause

At about this time in 1776, Betsy Ross works as a seamstress and an upholsterer. At least according to legend, she would make the first American flag at the request of George Washington.

History remembers her as “Betsy Ross,” but would that seem funny to her? She was widowed three times and lived most of her life with other names.

She was born Elizabeth Griscom to an abolitionist Quaker family, where she was the eighth of seventeen children. She attended a Quaker school and was then apprenticed to an upholsterer. It was during this apprenticeship that she met John Ross.

There was just one problem. John was an Anglican. As a Quaker, Betsy was not supposed to marry outside her faith. The two must have been deeply in love, because they ended up eloping when she was only 21 years old. She was promptly expelled from her church.

Tragically, John was killed less than three years into their marriage. As a member of the local militia, he was guarding an ammunition cache when he was mortally injured.

He gave his life for the Patriot cause.

Betsy was left a young widow, trying to run her own upholstery business. She also made extra money through seamstress work. She was alone, as the couple did not have any children before John's death.

Mere months after John was killed, Betsy was apparently asked to make a flag with thirteen stars and stripes. This story has never been conclusively proven or disproven. But if it did occur, then it occurred in May or June of 1776.

George Washington reportedly visited Betsy along with two other men, Robert Morris and George Ross. Betsy would have known George Ross because he was John’s uncle. And she would have known Washington because her pew in Christ Church was right next to his. According to Betsy’s daughter, “[Betsy] was previously well acquainted with Washington, and that he had often been in her house in friendly visits, as well as on business. That she had embroidered ruffles for his shirt bosoms and cuffs, and that it was partly owing to his friendship for her that she was chosen to make the flag.”

As the story goes, Washington had a sketch in his pocket of a flag with thirteen stars and stripes. The stars in Washington’s sketch, however, had 6 points. Betsy suggested making a change. She showed the men that she could cut a 5-point star with just one snip of her scissors. Everyone agreed that a 5-point star would work for the new American flag.

Sadly, Betsy lost her second husband during the Revolution also. She’d married a mariner, Joseph Ashburn, in 1777. In 1780, Joseph’s ship was captured by a British frigate. He was taken to a prison in England, where he died before he could return home. Joseph never knew that his first daughter passed away at only 9 months old. And he never met his second daughter, born while he was in prison. Instead, Betsy went through these two experiences alone.

Late in 1782, Betsy received a visitor by the name of John Claypoole. He’d been a prisoner with Joseph, so he’d come to tell Betsy that she was a widow again. The two became friends and were married in May 1783. Betsy and Claypoole had a long, 34-year marriage, but Betsy ultimately outlived Claypoole, too. She spent the last three years of her life living with one of her daughters. By then, she’d gone completely blind. She died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 84.

All in all, Betsy’s life is a tale of love, heartbreak, sacrifice—and plenty of hard work. You have to wonder what she’d think of modern controversies over her flag, don’t you?

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