Betsy Ross


Three Missing Words


John B. Harker


            The Flag Resolution, adopted June 14, 1777 is missing three words. This is most likely due to the Marine Committee feeling they were unnecessary in the light of earlier on-going discussions and a specimen flag in front of them. The story begins with the committee of George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross (her uncle in law) calling on Betsy to have a specimen flag made. No doubt this family tory has suffered from repetition through the years, however, it contains one  incontrovertible germ of truth. It is that Betsy persuaded Washington to use a five-pointed star instead of the European heraldic six-pointed star.  That is confirmed in a painting of Washington done by Peale in 1783 and hanging in Nashua Hall at Princeton University.  Five-pointed stars are part of Washington’s uniform.  More importantly, five-pointed stars  were used on naval flags made by Betsy for the Pennsylvania Navy in late 1776 and early 1777, payment being made to Betsy in late May, 1777.  Through the years, they became the norm. 


There is another family legend that supports the undocumented meeting with the three men in late May or early June 1776. Descendents of Patricia Prescott Sherman, wife of the very able representative from Connecticut, Roger Sherman.  have reported that she learned from her husband of the flag being made for George Washington.  She called on Betsy and according to the Prescott family story, actually helped stitch stars onto the flag being made. 


Lets assume that this specimen flag was completed around the time of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Washington left Philadelphia so the flag would have been delivered to George Ross. He had been a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774 and 1775, but was not a member in May or June 1776 so the finished flag was not official.  However, he was reappointed July 26, 1776 and was one of those who signed the Declaration of Independence in August.  The specimen flag would be in circulation by then, as a flag to represent the new United States.  What was of more immediate concern was a flag for the Pennsylvania Navy, doubling as the Navy of the Continental Congress.


 Just across the hall in what is now known as Independence Hall , where the Continental Congress met, the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety was busy. George Ross, from Lancaster, was a part of this group. On August 19, Capt. William Richards, responsible for stores for the Pennsylvania Navy, wrote to the Committee asking “what sort of colors I am to have made for the gallies etc ….. as they are much wanted.”  It can be presumed that the finished “specimen” flag was under discussion, but a flag was needed for the navy.


 Two months passed, and Richards wrote again on October 15th, saying “The Commodore was with me this morning and says the fleet has not yet any colors to hoist if they should be called upon for duty. It is not in my power to get them until there is a design fixed on to make the colors by.” 


Apparently this letter got some results as Betsy Ross is paid on May 29, 1777 for delivering ships colors to William Richards storehouse.  How did she get this contract?  Consider that George Ross, uncle of her late husband, was looking out for her and knew that recently widowed she needed the income.


Who determined the final arrangement of the stars on the naval flag is not known, but they were five-pointed in lines of 3-2-3-2-3 that effectively overlaid the lines of the British crosses.  Something that was easy for flag makers to accomplish. In 1795 this flag evolved into the 15 star, 15 stripe flag that flew over Fort McHenry, the Star Spangled Banner. .


The Flag Resolution of June 14, 1777, was for the adoption of a national flag, the issue of a naval flag having already been settled. . Several weeks after payment to Betsy for flags delivered to Capt. Richardson, it read:  “Resolved that the Flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the Union be 13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation.”  The three missing words were “in a circle” which could have been placed after “white” but they were not needed.   In other words, the design with its circle of stars feature had already been shown around and discussed and the circle was an accepted feature. .


 Betsy’s “specimen” flag likely had been in existence since June of the previous year,  and the Marine Committee in making it official on June 14th wanted to finish this piece of public business before the first anniversary celebration of July 4th, even though the resolution was not officially published until September. An unintended consequence was that those not part of the inner political body were free to be creative in how they arranged the stars,  and did so for years to come.


John B. Harker is a fifth generation descendent of Elizabeth Claypoole (a.k.a. Betsy Ross) who learned while writing his book “Betsy Ross’s Five Pointed Star,” (available through Amazon) that historians have their own biases; among which is to deny giving any credit to a woman who had become a national icon thanks to Charles H. Weisgerber’s painting “Birth of our Nation’s  Flag.”

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Page last updated: July 23, 2011


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