Betsy Ross - A Flag and a Heroic Life
Betsy Ross- Charles Weisgerber, 1892
Today on our nation's Birthday, we are honored to take you to Philadelphia. I spent five years living there in college and beyond, and was always fascinated by the history under every step. The Betsy Ross House was preserved by a citizen effort and truly evokes the way people lived in the birthplace of our country, Philadelphia in 1776. It is now supported by a foundation called Friends of the Betsy Ross House.
This is a model for supporting a historical site anywhere. (Even Shoreline!)
We discovered this site today that tells the Betsy Ross story. though I had visited her home in Philadelphia as a child, I had not realized what a difficult life she led, and how amazing it was that she managed to survive. She was heroic not only for her patriotic act of creating the Nation's first flag, but for her day to day struggles as a working woman, mother and wife.
As was typical in the early years of our history, the work of women was and is still under appreciated.
Let's take a moment to think about the work they must have all done to support the creation of America.
According to legend, she was visited by George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross (her first husband's uncle), and commissioned to create the first flag of the United States in 1777. She was an expert upholsterer and seamstress.
She was widowed three times, twice by the American Revolution.
Just think what it took for her to keep going through all of the struggles she endure.
On January 1, 1752, Elizabeth Griscom, familiarly called Betsy, was the eighth of 17 children born into the Quaker family of Samuel and Rebecca Griscom.
Samuel, a successful carpenter, moved his large family from their farmhouse in New Jersey to the growing city of Philadelphia when Betsy was three years old. They eventually settled into a large home on 4th and Arch streets.
Although Betsy is often referred to as a seamstress, she was actually a trained upholsterer. After completing her formal education at a school for Quaker children, Betsy went on to apprentice to John Webster, a talented and popular Philadelphia upholsterer. She spent several years under Webster, learning to make and repair curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas and Venetian blinds, as well as working on other projects that involved sewing.
While apprenticing to Webster, Betsy met and fell in love with a fellow apprentice named John Ross, an Anglican and son of the Assistant Rector of Christ Church. Being devout Quakers, Betsy’s family did not approve of her relationship with John. Marrying outside of the faith was an offense worthy of expulsion from the Quaker community. Nevertheless, on November 4, 1773, Betsy and John fled across the Delaware River to Hugg’s Tavern in Gloucester, New Jersey where they married without the blessing of her family and fellow Quakers.
Despite that, the newlyweds prospered, soon opening their own upholstery business in a rented house on Philadelphia’s Mulberry Street (now Arch Street), in the heart of a bustling section of Philadelphia now known as Old City.
They were married for just over two years when their union was tragically cut short by the war for independence. John Ross, a member of the local militia, was guarding munitions near the Delaware River when an explosion of gunpowder killed him, leaving Betsy a childless widow at the age of 24. Betsy continued to run her upholstery business, making extra income by mending uniforms and making tents, blankets, musketballs, and cartridges for the Continental army.
On June 15, 1777, Betsy married her second husband, Joseph Ashburn. Joseph was a mariner and was often at sea, leaving Betsy, a new mother, alone in Philadelphia. The sea was a dangerous place during the Revolution; in 1780 a British frigate captured Joseph’s ship. The crew was charged with treason and taken to Old Mill Prison in Plymouth,England. While Ashburn was imprisoned at Old Mill, his and Betsy’s first daughter, Zilla, died at only nine months old and their second daughter, Eliza was born. Joseph never learned of Zilla’s death nor had the opportunity to see his new daughter, because he died of an unknown illness before the British released the American prisoners in 1782.
Later in 1782, still grieving from the death of her first child, Betsy was visited by an old acquaintance named John Claypoole. He was a fellow prisoner and close friend of Joseph Ashburn. John was there to bring Betsy the news of her second husband’s death. Betsy learned that she was once again a widow at the age of 30.
John Claypoole and Betsy rekindled their old friendship and were married on May 8, 1783. A year later, Betsy returned to her Quaker roots when she and her husband joined the Society of Free Quakers—a sect, unlike the pacifist traditional Quakers, that supported America’s fight for freedom from British rule.
Betsy was finally able to enjoy a lengthy marriage to John Claypoole, but this 34- year relationship was not without its struggles. The couple had five more daughters together, but only four of them lived to maturity.
In 1793, Betsy’s mother, father, and sister died within days of each other from the yellow fever, leaving Betsy to raise her niece. In 1812, Betsy and John’s young, widowed daughter Clarissa moved into their home with her five young children and a sixth on the way. Once again, Betsy had a full house of children to care for. But the children were not the only members of the household who needed much of Betsy’s attention. For nearly 20 years, John Claypoole was disabled as a result of his earlier war injuries. He died from a lengthy illness in 1817.
Betsy continued her upholstery and flag-making business with the help of her daughter Clarissa. After over fifty years in her trade, she retired at the age of 76 and left the city to live on her daughter Susanna’s farm in the remote suburb of Abington. According to her descendents, although her vision was failing rapidly, Betsy continued to take the long carriage ride to the Free Quaker Meetinghouse in the city every week.
By 1833 Betsy was completely blind. She spent the last three years of her life living with her daughter Jane’s family on Cherry Street in Philadelphia. With family present, Betsy Ross died peacefully in her sleep on January 30, 1836. She was 84 years old.